Sundance 2016 | ‘Hunt for the Wilderpeople’ Bags a Big One

Hunt for the Wilderpeople (pronounced like “wildebeest” but with “people”) invites us back to an era when kids movies were odd and troubling and full of heart. It is a saga of love and family and fugitives and guns, a weird hybrid of Hatchet and The Goonies and The Legend of Billie Jean and Danny Champion of the World. I think I might be in love with it.

Taika Waititi’s film, based on the book by Barry Crump, is the story of Ricky (Julian Dennison), a hooligan foster kid who loiters with the worst of them. After burning through every other set of parents in New Zealand, he’s taken in by Aunt Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and Uncle Hec (Sam Neill). Bella’s goodness cannot be contained, and seems to spill out from all sides, even when she slaughters boars in the wilderness behind their house. And Hec… yeah, Hec tolerates Ricky alright.

But just as Ricky is getting settled, tragedy strikes and he decides to fake his own death and run away, gun in hand, to make a life for himself in the bush. Hec finds him easily, because Ricky kind of sucks at this, but they’re forced to camp out just long enough that Ricky’s disappearance is noticed by the authorities, and Hec becomes Public Enemy #1 for kidnapping a child and doing god knows what with him out in the woods.

Also: Sundance 2016 | Life is Ruff in ‘Wiener-Dog’

It should and does take a lot of circumstance for a grown man, even a not particularly bright one like Hec, to embrace a fugitive status and bring a little kid along for the ride. But Waititi’s film isn’t afraid of doing a few dramatic calisthenics. The story of Hunt for the Wilderpeople is based on simple contrivance (gotta get them out on the run somehow) but so beautifully performed by Dennison and Neill that you don’t care that, if you think about it, none of this should be happening. What matters is that the consequences of returning home are so dire to each of them that they abscond further and further into the wilderness and develop a powerful bond based on mutual affection, and mutual annoyance.

Taika Waititi has seen a lot of movies, and you can tell. Hunt for the Wilderpeople calls its shots and aims squarely at The Lord of the Rings, Thelma & Louise and (in a joke that made me chortle like an idiot) The Knack… and How to Get It. And yet his film doesn’t feel like a pastiche. Hunt for the Wilderpeople is the genuine article, filled with innovation and suspense. Waititi even has a great new way with a montage that I suspect future filmmakers are going to rip off as soon as humanly possible.

Also: Sundance 2016 | Weeping With ‘Other People’

Hunt for the Wilderpeople blurs the line between irresponsibility and responsibility, asking the question of what you would do if they ever turn out to be one and the same. Hec’s decision to protect Ricky from the dangers of child welfare places them both in more danger, and the government agent (Rachel House) tasked with retrieving this child goes so far overboard with her new Terminator persona that she probably does more harm than good. Hunt for the Wilderpeople is not, mercifully, a so-called “message movie” but Waititi doesn’t want you to turn your brain off either. You will need your brain to appreciate this movie on its many levels.

There aren’t a lot of truly fantastic kids movies out there nowadays, and those that do get made have a tendency to slip through the cracks. (Did you see Big Game? Yeah, I thought not.) I hope that Hunt for the Wilderpeople finds its audience. It’s a rousing adventure and a hilarious comedy, acted with lovable zeal and directed with sweet creativity by a filmmaker with – I hope – a great future ahead of him. 

Photo Courtesy of Sundance Institute

William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and watch him on the weekly YouTube series Most Craved and What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.


The Top 50 Must-See Sundance Movies: