Ricky Baker is an orphaned juvenile delinquent, a “real bad egg,” as an onscreen title announces in “Hunt for the Wilderpeople,” Taika Waititi’s endearingly playful adventure tale set in the New Zealand bush.
When Ricky is sent to live with foster parents Bella and Hec Faulkner on their farm, it’s not exactly a match made in heaven. Minutes after arriving, the sullen preteen takes one lap around the house and circles straight back into the police car he arrived in. In time, though, he settles in, eventually joining Hec on an epic journey through the wilderness while eluding the predatory clutches of social services, vigilante do-gooders and well-armed police and military squads.
As portrayed by Julian Dennison and Sam Neill, Ricky and Hec slip easily into kid-and-curmudgeon camaraderie, with Dennison making the most of his stout frame and Neill still evincing the handsomeness that made him a heartthrob in “My Brilliant Career,” even if it’s buried here under a bushy white beard and a perpetual scowl.
“You can call him Uncle,” the sweet-natured Bella (Rima Te Wiata) tells Ricky when he arrives. “No he can’t,” Hec barks back, rolling a cigarette.
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And so it goes, in a buddy comedy in which the joshing, lighthearted humor in time gives way to outright silliness worthy of Monty Python at its most absurdly outlandish (with a nod toward “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” for good measure). Adapted by Waititi from Barry Crump’s 1986 novel “Wild Pork and Watercress,” “Wilderpeople” possesses the same goofy irreverence the filmmaker brought to his vampire satire “What We Do in the Shadows,” which burst with similar larky joie de vivre.
Appearing in a funny cameo as an eccentric preacher, Waititi is an expansive, warm-hearted humanist. The fun he pokes is strictly superficial, never grazing his characters’ vital organs or essential dignity.
Structured as a series of brief, antic chapters, “Hunt For the Wilderpeople” gives viewers the added bonus of spectacular scenery, taking them on a journey through New Zealand’s exquisite forests, mountains and lakes that become characters in themselves. At times awkwardly staged – especially when it comes to some dubious gunplay at a forest rest cabin and a gratuitously wacky climax – this fanciful fable nonetheless finds its own rhythm, especially as Ricky’s natural exuberance begins to wear away at Hec’s impenetrable sulk.
Even when it dispenses with realism altogether, “Hunt For the Wilderpeople” conveys important truths about the will and sheer endurance it takes to make a family.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople
Cast: Julian Dennison, Sam Neill, Rima Te Wiata
Director: Taika Waititi
Length: 101 minutes
Rating: PG-13 (mature thematic material, violence and some coarse language)
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