Review: Hunt for the Wilderpeople (Sundance)
PLOT: A rebellious city kid named Rocky (Julian Dennison) and his grumpy foster uncle (Sam Neill) hide out in the sprawling New Zealand bush in order to keep from being separated by overzealous child care workers.
REVIEW: I had no idea Taika Waititi had a new movie at Sundance this year. Anyone wondering why WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS director Waititi was picked by Marvel to helm THOR RAGNAROK need look no further than HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE. If he rumored premise of Thor and The Hulk having a MIDNIGHT RUN-style adventure in Asgaard are true, Waititi’s selection is inspired as he brings that exact dynamic to WILDERPEOPLE, large-scale New Zealand-set adventure that seems likely to land one of the festivals biggest deals.
A lot of current directors try to recapture that old Amblin’ Entertainment vibe in their attempts at making a family film, but Waititi has done it because he’s made the perfect kids movie by simply not making it for kids. There’s some swearing, a lot of edge and a few really sad moments, including one that compares to the ant-death in HONEY I SHUNK THE KIDS and the horse scene in THE NEVERNEDING STORY. And you know what? Kids will love it as its the rare family film that doesn’t pander to them. It’s like a Pixar movie come to live via live action.
Based on a book by Barry Crump and divided into chapters, HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE packs a lot of plot into the ninety minute running time, with a sweet prologue demonstrating how the parent-less Rocky - who’s considered a near-criminal by his half-crazed caseworker - winds up in the care of the illiterate, rough-edged Hec. Young Julian Dennison is hilarious as the wannabe gangsta kid, who immediately clashes with his new guardians but comes to like living in the bush even if he’s completely ignorant about what it takes to survive. Sam Neil is especially great as Hec, a kind of Crocodile Dundee-type character if he existed in the real world. Neill has a blast as the ornery old hunter, and him and Dennison’s Rocky make such an odd-coupling that they can’t help but be great.
Neill really hasn’t had a role like this in awhile, with it trading on his iconic persona, and seeing him get such a meaty, amusing part is a treat. Waititi uses him brilliantly, as he does the rest of the Kiwi actors (he gives himself a funny cameo as none-too-bright reverend). Hec’s tow pet dogs, Zag ad Tupac (the latter named by Rocky) also steal quite a few scenes, although bits where the pups are in danger elicited more than a few gasps at the public screening and should keep kids on the edge of their seats.
This is really a wonderful adventure-comedy and probably the best thing I’ve seen at this year’s Sundance - although it is early. Waititi’s a wonderful director and this is even better than WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS, with top-notch production values, wonderful Bush-scenery from New Zealand and a fantastic eighties-style score by Lukasz Buda, Samuel Scott and Conrad Wedde. I loved every minute of it and it was an absolute pleasure to watch. More than anything I’m super pumped for THOR RAGNAROCK. Bring it on!
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