Friday 16 September 2016

Hunt For The Wilderpeople

Taika Waititi has built a respectable rep over the last few years, to the point where he may well find himself nestled snugly between Peter Jackson and Jane Campion in the category "Vaguely Well-Known Film Directors From New Zealand" on a future episode of Pointless (if not in real life, I don't know how close these guys are). Marvel Big Nob Kevin Feige has so much faith in him that he's handed him the keys to the Thor franchise, and if Waititi's CV is anything to go by, the drapes-wearing Norse god's third solo outing will be exactly as serious as its subject matter demands, i.e. not remotely.

I'm very happy about all this, because Taika Waititi seems like a decent chap, and he certainly makes interesting films. I'm just not quite sure if they're *good* enough, and while I don't really care a right lot about whether or not Thor: Ragnarok is premium Marvelry, I wouldn't want a bad blockbuster to have an adverse affect on a promising career, because I still think Waititi's best film is ahead of him. All of which is an inordinately long-winded and convoluted way of saying that Hunt For The Wilderpeople is fine but could have been better. I don't know why I didn't just say that to begin with. Sorry.
Firmly in the tradition of Delightfully Quirky Indie Films Made In Places Where Everyone Talks Funny, Hunt For The Wilderpeople is very much all of those things. Unhealthily rotund tween Julian Dennison plays Ricky Baker, a kid nobody wants around them, while Sam Neill is Hector Faulkner, a gruff old bugger who wants nobody around him. Thrown together and placed in an extreme situation, the pair form an unlikely bond (well, unlikely if you've never seen a film in which two mismatched people are thrown together and placed in an extreme situation), undergoing an episodic bush-based odyssey that forces them to truly find themselves and yadda yadda yadda. Waititi knows his characters' arcs won't surprise anyone, so his job is to make their journey as Delightfully Quirky as possible, and at that he more or less succeeds.

Neill and Dennison are a joy to watch, tramping through the wilderness like Up's Carl and Russell made flesh. Neill's beard and chunky-knit sweaters made me want him to hold me throughout the entire winter, while Dennison is a 12A version of Summer Heights High's gloriously awful Jonah Takalua, a wannabe gangsta who composes half-baked haikus as a form of anger management. Supporting characters are mostly successful, not least Rachel House's unbalanced social worker Paula, although what seems like an obligatory cameo from Rhys Darby (alumnus of Waititi projects Flight Of The Conchords and What We Do In The Shadows) feels like it stumbled in from a much broader comedy.

Hunt For The Wilderpeople's appeal stems more from its situation than its comedy (one incident recalls The Revenant, probably inadvertently but no less amusing for it), to the point where a good proportion of the jokes stumble when a more honed script and tighter direction and editing could have made them soar. I suspect I'm in a minority, but I had this problem with Waititi's Eagle vs Shark and What We Do In The Shadows: great ideas that just felt a little lacking in the execution. Characterisation is the director's strongest point though, and - like those earlier films - Wilderpeople boasts enough of that to forgive it its flaws. And if Waititi can find a part for Dennison in Thor: Ragnarok, I'll forgive him anything.

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