Hunt for the Wilderpeople: humorous hiking

Hunt for the Wilderpeople is the new film from talented New Zealand Director/Writer Taika Waititi soon to be directing the epic Thor Ragnarok. My favourite of his films to date is What We Do In The Shadows – a film that is sharp, witty and has an almost ‘The Office’ esque quirky humour. Watiti continues this trend in his new addition with a story of two vastly different people forced to bond in a hostile environment. What shines through the most is the extremely well written script and perfect casting which come together to create a story reliant on talent rather than spectacle.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople tells the story of a young orphan arriving at an isolated farm after being adopted by a farmer and his wife and how unfortunate events form an unlikely friendship. Perhaps what I admire most about this movie is the slow transition into friendship between actors Julian Dennison and Sam Neil and how Taika so perfectly captures the contrast in age, upbringing, values and the urban/country divide. The result of this is intelligently constructed verbal and scenario-based humour that results in the payoff of friendship feeling fully earned by the films ending credits.

Personally, I found that the film starts off at too slow a pace and struggles to find it’s footing in the first twenty minutes as each character is established and events are set up. At times the film seems to lose direction, focusing too much on the clumsy ineptitude of Ricky as he tries to escape his foster parents. Overall, however, this is a minor issue that is outshone by the touching relationship Ricky develops with his foster mother and the quirky humour of the villainous social worker.

The cinematography used in this film compliments perfectly the physical humour of the scene using a series of quick-zooms, and wide shots to illustrate humor and wide drone shots to give a sense of scale. All of this contributes greatly to the underlying character of Ricky and his attempts of badassery in a way that is charming and staged to great effect. Another impact this has has on the discourse of the film is to allow the beauty of the nature to shape itself in a way that heightens the epicness of each stage of this buddy adventure film. Some of the more wacky cinematographic elements are delivered expertly including the 80s esque flake advert that pokes fun at rom-coms while at the same time satirising the wonder-struck innocence of Ricky.

Importantly, the film succeeds in delivering an outstanding script that is both heartwarming and extremely funny in the way that it constructs dialogue between characters. The mismatch between Ricky’s youthful rebelliousness contrasts to the stubbornness of Hector creates a distinctive humour that hits the audience time and again throughout. Ricky is a large character, whose self-nominated gangster mentality and pop-culture references jibe well with the illiterate, bull-headed and guarded Hector. The nuanced performances and hard-cutting realities alongside a script filled with awkward conflict mean that cliche is avoided and the style heightened dialogue feels authentic. Watiti quickly flips between pop0-culture references, satirising the church, competing childishly and general ignorance in a way that will make you fall in love with each character more and more.

The editing in this film is flawless, Luke Haigh creates a steady pace that quickens and slows appropriately and borrows from the style of his previous collaboration WWDITS with clever use of reaction shots and lingering on scenes for just the appropriate length of time to deliver it’s punches perfectly. A standout example is the scene in the cabin between Ricky and the campers as it cuts from the brawl to Ricky shouting ‘shit just got real’. The joke could have come off out-of place but this is timed intelligently and with heightened stylistic ability. One key criticism is the use of montages. Their frequency cheapens their potential and fails to coordinate effectively as a transition between key plot points with what is a fantastic soundtrack.

Although a minor point in this particular feature, the clothing for each character helps to compliment their traits. In particular the police officer’s simplistic uniform and oversized police hat alongside the social worker’s oversized riot gear chip in and highlight the characters’ immaturity and the juxtaposition in their relationship. Additionally, Ricky Baker’s red and white hoody compliment his ‘skuxx lifestyle’ and outlandish personality. Lastly, Hector’s hiker’s hat sat on top of his often furrowed, quizzical brow introduce a new dimension to the character.

The linear structure of the film and it’s comical elements mean that the audience never truly believe that anyone is in real danger so the question becomes not what will happen but how will it happen in a way that attaches you to each character intimately. Therefore the film rests on the shoulder of it’s cast. Sam Neill perfectly depicts the isolated, grumpy farmer. Neill perfectly depicts an adult unequipped and unwilling to support such an incapable and exuberant kid. This helps to explore the nature of the character’s friendship and sets up Julian Dennison’s expertly acted comic lead. Dennison brings a level of vulnerability to this role without losing the film’s light touch and delivers his more emotional lines in a way that continues the story’s momentum and without awkwardly cutting from his more humorous speaking parts not a few lines beforehand. He is able to channel is obese physicality and the character’s rambling young-teenage speaking style with expertly crafted humour that attaches the viewer to his character and makes the hopes of both the character and audience one and the same.  Whats more the supporting cast make a great addition. In particular the bickering between the incompetent police officer and social worker has some great laughs as well as the hype and enthusiasm the social worker has over the manhunt which has some great humour played through it.

From my perspective, this film is lacking in production design, something that could be implemented subtly and effectively during several scenes. The location scouting can be admired for mcu, if not all of the wilderness scenes as well as the comic architecture of the prison scene seen in the last act. The church scene and many of the scenes inside the farmhouse could have complemented the great cinematography by using a technique known as blocking. This is a technique that targets the spacing and dimensions of objects and backgrounds in scenes in a way that is stylistic and quirky. I can understand why this wasn’t implemented however because of the film’s low budget and borderline over-quirkiness.

Narrative structure in this film is complimented by a pitch-perfect soundtrack. The film divides itself into ten chapters, each of which have a colourful tune that pre-empt the chapter’s tone. This off-beat quirk compliments the off-beat humour and sets the groundwork for more extravagant and dramatic music. The variety of music ranges from operatic solos to 80s electronic and even courtly ballads in a way that compliments the intentions of each character as well as their thought process. Dramatic tribal music describes Ricky’s survival, badass mentality. Upbeat synth beats with low dramatic bass give a sense of epicness to the manhunt and the physical toll of the journey. When safe haven is found in the form of a family home the tone shifts and voice mixing with a low melodic beat trigger the correct approach Watiti wishes to put across in each scene.

Colour-grading in this film plays quite a minor role but is used intelligently and sparingly so as to emphasise the film’s key moments. The saturation highlights the beauty of the nature that surrounds these characters as well as the wildlife that inhabits it. Moreover the warm colours of the opening scenes bleed into the more stark and bland colours of the film’s darker aspects in a way that elicits an immediate response from the viewer. The shift in colour tone to a lighter and more open palette in the ending scenes help to fully realise the sense of closure and resolution fully.

My opinion is that the film has a familiar narrative arc but achieves a level of depth through the hardship experienced by its characters as well as it’s attention to the humour in human frailty and the differences that divide communities in Australia and more generally. This message is delivered in the form of a director cameo. Watiti plays a priest who foolishly poses the question of choosing the door to Jesus or the door to Cheetos and 7-up. The humour in this sentiment delivers a subtle commentary directly from the director on the humour found in human frailty.

Overall Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a wonderfully charming, thoughtful and offbeat comedy with a great cast, a phenomenal script and a great narrative. At times the tone is too slow and flat and the film loses out on mediocre production design but this is overshadowed by it’s snappy editing, cinematography and delivery of stellar dialogue proving once again that Taika Waititi is a talented director. At the end we feel that Watiti has earned our approval and the following haiku delivers an emotional punch – “Me and this fat kid / We ran we ate and read books / And it was the best”.



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