Review: Hunt for the Wilderpeople
If you want to know how Taika Waititi—a quirky independent Kiwi filmmaker previously best known for making that mockumentary about vampires and a few episodes of that TV show about a musical-comedy duo—somehow came out of nowhere and landed a gig directing Thor movies, you’ll find some answers in 2016’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople. If you’re still trying to figure out how Waititi actually managed to make a good Thor movie, when directors as celebrated as Kenneth Branagh tried the same and failed spectacularly, again, I would point you in the direction of Hunt for the Wilderpeople.
Waititi has, of course, developed a reputation for absurdity, and this hilarious film about a troubled foster child and his reluctant guardian traipsing through the New Zealand bush on the run from the law is nothing if not absurd. But who cares, really? There are any number of filmmakers out there who specialize in the absurd, and you don’t see Hollywood throwing
money at them to helm blockbusters. (Seriously, I don’t mean to take a sideways crack at Wes Anderson here, because unlike most of my Cineluxe compatriots I actually enjoy his films. But can you imagine Anderson being asked to helm a tentpole blockbuster?)
What makes Waititi so sought after is that he also has a knack for something Hollywood couldn’t fake if you let an infinite number of studio monkeys tug at an infinite number of heartstrings for an infinite amount of time: Sincerity. And of all his films I’ve seen to date, Hunt for the Wilderpeople is his most sincere.
There’s a moment early on that illustrates this perfectly. Little Ricky Baker, an adolescent hooligan who has bounced around the foster-care system, is first introduced to his foster mother, Bella. Her excitement is palpable and she nearly trips all over herself as a result, which of course causes her to say and do the stupidest things possible.
I have to think that in almost any other filmmaker’s hands,
WILDERPEOPLE AT A GLANCE
Taika (Jojo Rabbit) Waititi’s 2016 indie-film effort is an absurd but sincere tale of a foster child and his guardian traipsing through the New Zealand bush.
The limitations of the HD presentation are in no way distracting, although a handful of the scenes would benefit from the enhanced resolution of UHD.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack can get a little too clever for its own good but it’s a fantastic mix overall, full of aggressive front-soundstage panning that perfectly serves the onscreen action.
Bella’s nervous awkwardness would have been played for laughs at her expense. She would have been a joke to be mocked, an out-of-touch wannabe-hip parental unit portrayed in the most clichéd way possible.
And don’t get me wrong: The scene is played for laughs. But not at Bella’s expense. The humor comes from the situation itself, the relatability of it all. And it’s that fact that makes the character’s transformation from doting foster parent into bad-ass backwoods farmer chick all the more believable. It’s a shame we don’t get to spend more time with her, because she’s really the heart of the film. But her untimely death is the fire that fuels the entire rest of the plot, which is one of the most compelling comedies-of-errors I’ve seen in ages.
I’m not really spoiling the plot here because there’s not a ton to spoil, but with Bella out of the picture, Ricky is slated to be taken back into the foster system, and as a result he runs away. Bella’s husband, Hec—who professes to have no emotional investment in the boy—follows him, and before long they’re branded as fugitives and become the targets of a highly publicized manhunt.
And that’s it, really. That’s the story. But I’m a sucker for a simple tale, especially one this well told. It isn’t just Waititi’s utter lack of cynicism that makes it all work, though. It’s also his gift for pacing and most especially timing. He also, for whatever reason, knows how to let kids be kids. Ricky, played by Julian Dennison (who would go on to have a memorable turn in Deadpool 2 as Firefist), doesn’t just act like a kid and talk like a kid—he thinks like a kid. It’s one of those rare performances that shines an unflinching light on just how awful and inauthentic most portrayals of adolescents are in films.
What’s more, Dennison and Sam Neill (who plays Hec) don’t really act like they’re in a comedy. Some of the secondary characters do, hamming it up and overplaying—not to an egregious degree, but certainly in keeping with the genre. The two leads, though, play it straight. They’re both weirdos, mind you. And there’s definitely a comedy-duo dynamic between then, with Dennison playing the goof and Neill the straight man. But . . . again, I’m struggling for any word other than “sincerity” here to describe their approach. They’re hilarious, yes, but they’re not playing it up for laughs.
Narratively simple though Wilderpeople may be, it’s pretty thematically rich for a comedy. It’s hard to watch and not be reminded of Goethe’s famous quote: “If you treat an individual as he is, he will remain how he is. But if you treat him as if he were what he ought to be and could be, he will become what he ought to be and could be.” Wilderpeople takes that one step in the other direction and plays with notions of what happens when we assume people to be criminals. And while it’s not too terribly deep, it’s certainly more food for thought than you’ll get from most slapstick romps.
Another thing that makes Wilderpeople such a joy is that it’s not nearly as predictable as most comedies tend to be. About an hour into the 100-minute runtime, anyone who’s ever seen any movie ever will have written the ending in their heads. It seems downright obvious. But Waititi doesn’t go for the obvious here, which makes the resolution just a bit more satisfying and a lot more humorous, though no less sweet than what you’ll think you see coming.
One word of warning, though: If you’re at all sensitive to animals being harmed, or if you have kids who are, there are a couple of scenes that are more difficult to watch than Old Yeller. I wish I’d known that ahead of time.
At any rate, given the relatively recent vintage of Wilderpeople, it’s a little surprising it’s not available in 4K HDR. But perhaps it shouldn’t be too surprising. Watching the film in HD via Kaleidescape, it’s evident that a handful of scenes would benefit from the enhanced resolution of UHD, especially some of the landscape shots. As for HDR, though? I’m not sure it would make a huge difference. Waititi and cinematographer Lachlan Milne obviously aimed for a somewhat muted look, at least in terms of contrasts. Blacks are never fully black and at no point do any of the brighter areas of the image come close to clipping. That gives the film a rather pastel look, even when colors get a bit more vibrant. Given this deliberate aesthetic choice, I can’t help but wonder if 10-bit color and dynamic range would significantly change the look of the imagery at all.
The real question, though, is whether or not the limitations of HD are in any way distracting. And the answer to that is a resounding and enthusiastic “No!” Honestly, the film is so visually striking that you rarely have time to worry about things like pixel count and color gamut. Every shot, no matter how seemingly mundane, is framed in such a way as to be utterly engaging. The eye can’t help but explore the screen from corner to corner. There’s nothing obtrusive about the camerawork, though. All of it is in service of the story, and I have to wonder if most viewers will consciously appreciate some of the framing choices that give the film its distinctive vibe without being in any way affected.
I’ll admit, though, that the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 does get a little too clever for its own good at times. Such instances are rare, but the mix leans a bit too heavy on the surround channels on occasion, especially in scenes where music is the predominant audio element. Ignoring those rare flubs, it’s a pretty fantastic mix overall, full of aggressive front-soundstage panning that perfectly serves the onscreen action. Dialogue intelligibility is also topnotch, which is much appreciated given the thick Kiwi accents of most of the actors.
It’s a bit of a bummer that the Kaleidescape download lacks the supplemental
material included with the Blu-ray release. (Kaleidescape isn’t alone, mind you. Vudu, Amazon, and other digital retailers also present Wilderpeople completely devoid of goodies since Apple seems to have nabbed the exclusive rights to the film’s extras in the digital domain.) I’m itching to listen to the commentary featuring Waititi, Neill, and Dennison, and I wouldn’t mind checking out the blooper reel, either. But I’m not motivated enough to make room for yet another disc on my movie shelves, especially given that those are the only bonus features of note.
Really, though, Hunt for the Wilderpeople stands on its own, and is very much worth the purchase price even without supplements.
Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of Alabama with his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound American Staffordshire Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.