There’s a sort of unofficial genre out there in the film marketplace, let’s call it the “family movie for kids with cool parents (FMFKWCP)” genre. These are movies that may or may not be made for children but which are semi-family friendly and are also made outside of the Hollywood system. These are movies that are made outside of the Hollywood system and which aren’t marketed directly to kids and aren’t made to have parents reluctantly drag their children to after having been begged for a week. Rather, these are movies that parents seek out and take their kids to whether or not said kids know what they’re getting into because the parent wants to expand their kids’ horizons just a little bit and have heard through word of mouth that whether the kids know what they’re in for they will appreciate the movie once they get there. The emperor of the FMFKWCP genre, from an American perspective anyway, is almost certainly Hayao Miyazaki but the “genre” usually takes the form of a live action film, often one from a director (usually a foreign director from an English speaking country) who’s known for more mature work but who’s decided to make something a bit more whimsical than usual. When I was a kid the film that filled that niche was an Irish-set John Sayles movie called The Secret of Roan Inish but I’ve seen other ones come along like Niki Caro’s Whale Rider, Danny Boyle’s Millions, and Stephen Daldry’s Billy Elliot. I would say that, while it skirts the line between family film and film for general audiences, the latest film from New Zealander Taika Waititi would also basically one for this strange little subset of film.
The film is set in rural New Zealand right on the edge of “the bush.” As the film begins a Child Protective Services agent named Paula (Rachel House) is bringing a twelve year old kid named Ricky (Julian Dennison) out to a remote farm where a woman named Bella (Rima Te Wiata) has agreed to take him in as a foster parent along with her husband who goes by the name Hec (Sam Neill). Bella is a wildly positive and endlessly patient if slightly dorky woman who is in many ways the best possible foster mother one could expect for a troubled youth. Hec on the other hand is sullen and impatient and less interested in the whole endeavor, but he’s not abusive or anything so much as he’s a bit withdrawn. Ricky initially hates it out in the boonies but comes to like it in large part because of Bella’s patience and love, but things quickly go awry when Bella suddenly dies of natural causes. Hec seems like a less loving foster parent but seems willing to stick it out, that is until child protective services decide that this is no longer a suitable home environment and give notice that Ricky will be taken away. Ricky isn’t having any of this so he decides to run away into the bush. Knowing that Ricky is completely out of shape and lacks survival skills Hec chases after him. With both of them seemingly missing, the authorities come to the conclusion that Ricky has been kidnapped and start chasing after both of them.
Taika Waititi was not a filmmaker I took all that seriously until fairly recently. Until last year he was probably most known for making strange comedy called Eagle Vs. Shark, but last year he directed and starred in an over-achieving horror/comedy called What We Do In the Shadows. That was a good movie but it still kind of made him look like a comedian with a camera rather than a great auteur but with this movie he seems to be stepping it up in a big way behind the camera. That isn’t to say that there isn’t still a lot of comedy here because there is, it just isn’t the kind of improvisational comedy that’s come to dominate what we expect from that genre today. In fact this is the kind of movie that has more laughs in it than the audience is likely to remember given that it’s only one part of the appeal rather than the main attraction.
Ricky and Hec make a good pair of opposites to put up against each other, partly because they both fit into archetypes while never being entirely defined by them. Ricky is labeled as a juvenile delinquent early on but you get a sense that a lot of his crimes are not terribly serious and while he fancies himself a “gangster” and names his pet dog Tupac the movie never overdoes it with the wannabe thug jokes and while it clearly views him as a wannabe it doesn’t ignore the legitimate plight he may have actually suffered. Meanwhile Hec also manages to be a bit more complex than he initially seems. At one point he’s jokingly called “Crocodile Dundee” but he isn’t entirely defined by that and he becomes increasingly interesting as you learn more about his past and his relationship with his deceased aunt. It doesn’t hurt that Sam Neil is doing some of his best work in a while, I hardly even recognized him at first given how button up he is in other movies like Jurassic Park and The Piano. The side characters are also a lot better than I expected them to be, especially the child protective services agent who is sort of the villain of the movie through her “principal in Ferris Bueller” level of obsession with this one case.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople poses something of a challenge for me as a critic because it’s a movie that really doesn’t do a whole lot wrong. For what it’s trying to do the thing hardly ever misses a beat… and yet at the end of the day I’m not really the target audience for the film and it really isn’t my thing and to some extent I can only be so excited by its success. There’s a certain predictability to the movie, you kind of know where it’s going (spoiler, the child and his uncle bond over the course of the adventure. Shocking I know) and at a certain point there is a bit of a “been there done that” quality to the whole thing even if it’s really well executed this time around. I can give the film a pretty high score but it’s never going to be the kind of thing that’s ever going to be my favorite movie of the year or anything. Still I’m definitely going to be taking this Taika Waititi guy more seriously… oh wait, his next movie is Thor: Ragnarok? Well when he’s done with that I’ll start taking him seriously.