Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
"LAST OF THE MONSTER KIDS" - Available Now on the Amazon Kindle Marketplace!

Friday, March 8, 2019

Director Report Card: Taika Waititi (2016)

4. Hunt for the Wilderpeople

I'll admit, I'm not horribly well-read in the cinema of New Zealand, outside of Peter Jackson movies. However, it certainly says something about the country's collective taste that Taika Waititi has made the highest grossing New Zealand-made movie twice. While he wouldn't really breakthrough with global cinema fans until “What We Do in the Shadows,” “Boy” was a big hit in his native country. It's a trick the director would repeat with “Hunt for the Wilderpeople,” which managed to out-gross “Boy's” success. You could read into why this is, as both of these films see Waititi celebrating the culture of his home land. Or maybe New Zealanders just have a weird sense of humor.

Ricky Baker is a twelve year old juvenile delinquent. After being in and out of a series of foster homes, his slightly overzealous Child Protective Service agent gives him one more chance. He's taken to the home of Bella, an exceptionally loving woman, and Hector, her quiet and prickly husband. Ricky quickly feels welcomed on their country farm. When Bella dies suddenly, Hector is heart-broken and Ricky is expected to be sent to juvenile prison. Instead, the two go on the run in the New Zealand Bush. As they stumble toward adventure, Ricky Baker and Hector unexpectedly become folk heroes. 

“Hunt for the Wilderpeople” is adapted from a book, “Wild Pork and Watercress” by Barry Crumb. Despite this, the film could not be more of a Taika Waititi production. The same themes the director has been tinkering with from the beginning as present. This is another story about misfits and bullshitters attempting to find their own place in the world. The filmmaker takes this theme to its most sentimental extreme. Ricky Baker is a chubby, weird kid who pretends he's a bad-ass but his lying and criminal activities are downplayed. Hector is an illiterate and antisocial ex-con. Both have their hearts soften and learn a lesson by their adventure in the bush. While this might sound like the director softening his rough edges, it's the perfect fit for the material. “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” is the most cuddly of Waititi's films but no less his own.

The film also sees the director putting his mark on a few particular genres. “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” is undeniably both a buddy movie and a road trip picture of sorts. At story's beginning, Ricky and Hector don't like each other very much. Hector is put off by the kid. Once Bella dies, he starts to resent the foster kid as a reminder of his dead wife. Ricky, meanwhile, finds Hector to be a stuck-up jerk. (He's not wrong.) Eventually, the two learn to love each other over their journey. And while there's very little tripping across roads in “Hunt for the Wilderpeople,” the sense of adventure and journey that drives a road trip narrative is certainly present and accounted for.

There's another genre rolled into “Hunt for the Wilderpeople's” DNA. The film is all-but a parody of what TVTropes calls the Kids' Wilderness Epic. As a kid of the nineties, I sat through “The Amazing Panda Adventure,” “Yellow Dog,” “Alaska,” and read “Hatchet” and “Island of the Blue Dolphins” in school. (The genre is at least as old as 1858.) Waititi's film puts an irrelevant spin on these story types. Ricky is set adrift in the wild, forced to find food and make shelter. He even befriends an especially unhinged local. However, the movie is playing with these ideas. It's never that hard for Ricky to find food. Ultimately, the act of being stranded in the forest is pretty fun.

Don't think that Waititi holds back on his typically quirky sense of humor by playing in these other arenas. “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” is frequently hilarious, with many of the surreal asides the director is well known for. This is probably the only time I've seen that old cartoon gag of someone being so hungry, they imagine somebody as food done in live action. This includes the delightful sight of a talking cheeseburger. Later, the quiet scenery of a New Zealand road is interrupted by a vehicle leaping through the air. Waititi has a hilarious cameo as a preacher who gives an especially rambling eulogy. There's a friendly family with an odd sausage obsession and a man who likes to dress up as a bush. Ricky's habits include dancing and pop culture references that range from Tupac, to Megatron, the Terminator, to shit getting real. Few minutes go by in “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” without a major laugh.

Once again, the jokes and gags do not simply exist for their own purpose. The sense of melancholy that always floats under his films is especially pronounced here. Bella is the type of person who doesn't give up on people. She saw something special in Hector and sees it in Ricky. By treating the boy with love, by doing simple things like putting a hot water bottle in his bed, When she dies, suddenly and without warning, it breaks both of their hearts. Though she's only in the film's first half, this sense of loss floats over the rest of “Hunt for the Wilderpeople.” It grows and extends into an encounter with a wild boar, for one example. Finding peace with loosing perhaps the only person to love them unconditionally is what truly drives Ricky and Hector's journey.

Visually, “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” at first seems to be more still than Waititi's other movies. Perhaps another reason the film did so well in New Zealand is because it's a celebration of the country's natural beauty. The film is set almost exclusively in the rolling green hills of the New Zealand countryside and the lush rain forest of the Bush. The film begins with a drone shot through those same hills, as if to establish the gorgeous setting. And it can't be unintentional that the huia, an extinct bird and national symbol of New Zealand, plays a small but significant role in the story. Sometimes, Waititi's camera just let's the viewer soak in the beauty of this place.

However, “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” certainly contains the same peppy streak that characterized the director's other movies eventually. Once Ricky Baker and Hector become folk heroes of a sort, the camera kicks into gear. We get an energetic montage devoted to how their story is spreading. The car chase that comprises the film's climax is similarly fast-paced in its direction. By frequently assuming Ricky's point-of-view, Waitit allows himself some imaginative moments. Such as the funny way he establishes Ricky's instantaneous crush on the one young girl he meets on his adventure. 

This would be the break-out role for Julian Dennison, who is now showing up in big budget tent-pole releases. And it's no wonder why, as Dennison is so hugely entertaining in this film. He brings Ricky to life in such a full-bodied, intuitive way. You get the impression that it's very easy for him to imagine being this kid. Ricky is impulsive, juvenile, and prone to exaggeration. Yet he's ultimately just unloved and needs someone to believe him. Dennison so nicely captures these two extremes. He's also really, really funny. He has a perfect grasp of that uniquely Waititi-esque dialogue, making awkward statements and unsteady conversation in a hilarious way.

Starring opposite Dennison is Sam Neill, another proud New Zealand export. Hector allows Neill to indulge in his grumpy side. He's an ideal straight man to Ricky's frequently goofy antics, responding to the kid with annoyance and a stiff upper lip. His growing exasperation is very funny, especially in a sequence involving some interloping hunters. Yet Neill is very good at showing the genuine affection Hector eventually feels for Ricky, most prominently in a scene where they talk before bed. The slow way Neill reveals that warmth is very much earned by the movie, which allows the character to be as grouchy and dismissive in the early scenes as he needs to be.

While the film revolves around these two characters and their relationship, there is a delightful supporting cast here. Bella, a saint-like character that loves Ricky the moment she sees him, might've been a hard part to play. Rima Te Wiata totally nails it, creating an utterly lovable and deeply empathetic woman with only a quarter of the screen time as the other characters. Rachel House, now established as a Waititi regular, is hysterical as Paula. Though only a child welfare worker, she treats her job as the most serious business in the world. House hilariously captures that type of personality, somebody who greatly overestimates their own importance without a moment of doubt. Rhys Darby also shows up for a very funny small role. And let's give it up for the dogs, Tupac and Zag, both of whom are very good boys.

The musical score is also excellent, especially how the gag about Ricky's birthday song comes full circle during the credits. Waititi apparently struggled to adapt “Wild Pork and Watercress” for years before realizing he had to make the project more of his own. (Apparently, the book is a darker affair.) I'm glad he did, as he created by far his sweetest film yet. While not as funny as “What We Do in the Shadows” or as personally biting as “Boy,” the film is still very funny, deeply felt, and beautifully acted. In short, “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” is utterly delightful from beginning to end. [Grade: A]

No comments: