SXSW Review: Taika Watiti Precedes ‘Thor: Ragnarok’ with His Infectious ‘Hunt For The Wilderpeople’

Last year, Taika Watiti delivered one of the most unexpectedly funny films in the form of a New Zealand mockumentary about Vampires who room together in a flat, What We Do In The Shadows. Following up the success of that film, Watiti finds himself deep in the bush of New Zealand in this tale of survival, hilarity, and heartwarming bonding. Of course, it only makes it better that our dynamic duo is that of Ricky Baker (Julian Dennision), the on-the-run delinquent foster child, and Uncle Hec (Sam Neil), the silent and crotchety man whom is tasked to look after him. After the passing of his wife, child protection services want Ricky back, but his habit of running away finds the two entrenched in the beautiful wilderness with nothing but books, guns, dogs, and a will to be gangster… or survive.

Julian Dennison steals the show with a humorous and multi-layered performance which will have you laughing one minute and tearing up the next. He’s a bigger fellow and according to New Zealand police, his malicious ways (including spitting and loitering among others) will have him end in juvenile detention, that is if they can catch him. His youthful spirit and energy is refreshing and his humor is so unforced, when compared to many younger actors in comedy roles. He’s not swearing up a storm, but he may be a little misguided in what he really wants. It’s in his most vulnerable moments when we learn more about his troubled past and how he ended up in the foster system. He’s determined to never look back and is hoping to learn to conquer the elements from his reluctant Uncle.

Sam Neil as said reluctant Uncle completely loses himself in the role and the bush, as we see him steadily transform over the course of their journey. Neil has a bitterness too him which creates an immediate barrier from him and the rest of the world. He’s used to isolation and doesn’t find himself fitting in well with the real world. Removed from seemingly everyone certainly took its toll on the character, but what we learn from him and about his character’s life is real important. He’s the elder to Dennison’s youth in the combo that I’m sure all grandparents and elders somewhat loathe. Taking care of kids is no easy task and I can only imagine what that relationship must be like when you’re tasked to watch over someone who’s a little more grown up. Somehow, they find a way to make things work enough to start a nationwide manhunt.

Yes, that’s right. The two go off into the bush and the CPS sends in the calvary to recover the boy from the clutches of the supposed “pervert”, a.k.a. Uncle Hec. This entire aspect of the film is so absurd and as the search grows larger, the laughs and ridiculousness ramp up. The New Zealand humor known as “Kiwi” comedy is very dry and silly, but it works even better against such a serious backdrop. The situations that the two find themselves in never seem too farfetched because of all the zaniness going on around them and in their most trying moments, the two really do find a connection which becomes stronger the longer they’re separated from society.

For all its comedic aspects, the film is definitely a tear-jerker from time-to-time, as I caught myself and others sniffling at just how much heart was found in this movie. Neil’s jaded and tough exterior is clearly a front, but Dennison is never anything but himself and in some moments he steps back from the adrenaline rush of being on the run and wonders just how and why he was out there. Why has he been through so many different homes? Why would his mother give him up as a child? While we never quite know all the answers, these are the sorts of questions which linger in the backs of ours and the character’s minds as we grow to care for their well-being. Even some of the biggest laughs in the film are followed by a slight drop of the heart when you really stop to think about what’s being said.

Watiti and his charming cast do an exceptional job of keeping the pace up and pausing for necessary moments. Broken into ten chapters, the film is an absolute delight which breezes by almost too quickly. These are the types of stories and characters silly and real enough to become quickly invested in and the combination of precise direction and stunning aerial and land shots tie everything together in a nice bow. I can see now why Marvel opted to bring Watiti onboard for Thor: Ragnarok. He’s someone you’d never expect to direct a superhero movie, but for that reason alone he shines as a brilliant candidate. Hunt For The Wilderpeople and the infectious joy it brings is a glowing reminder of why we go to movies and why it’s important to continue to tell stories in various ways.

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