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Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Somewhere in the New Zealand bush, Ricky Baker is lost, both literally and figuratively. He’s a foster kid who has bounced around plenty and is one mistake away from juvenile detention, who styles himself as a gangster, in a way similar to how Hudson Yang does on the TV show”Fresh Off the Boat” — both seem far too huggable to be taken seriously. He’s finally landed with a truly loving caretaker, and the first night he decides to run away into the vast wilderness behind the house. He makes it about 300 yards, before he lays down to take a little nap, and is awakened by Bella, his foster parent, who invites him back home for pancakes.

Things seem like they’re finally working out for little Ricky, but then tragedy strikes, and he’s off into the Bush again. Before long, he and gruff old survivor Hec (Sam Neil) are on the run from Child Welfare through the bush, in what becomes (rather implausibly) a nationwide manhunt involving SWAT teams, helicopters, and tanks. That’s all led by a Child Welfare worker (Rachel House) whose motto is “No Child Left Behind,” which roughly translates to “Every Child Suitably Punished for Annoying Me.”

Compare this to last year’s “Wildlike,” which I recently watched and has almost the exact same plot – and you see how much life Julian Dennison, clearly guided by Watiti, brings to the film.  Sam Neill just has to be gruff and warm-hearted.  He can do that in his sleep.  It’s about as difficult as growing facial hair. The kid has to do the rest, and he does. He is funny and adorable, and sad, and you want good things for him.

 “Hunt for the Wilderpeople,” Taika Waititi’s second feature film, is quirky, offbeat, and heartwarming.  Last year Waititi directed a mockumentary riff on vampires; what we have here is very different on the surface (no immortal creatures of the night) but also somewhat similar, in that this is a pretty familiar plot, borrowing from movies like “Up,” and “Walkabout,” but investing far more energy in riffing on those plot points than in making them believable.

“Wilderpeople” slips into caricature, and then back out of it again, which I find kind of disorienting. When they need to, the characters act like real people. When they don’t, they act like cartoon characters. I have a hard time knowing how much I should care about Ricky’s difficult life, or unresolved grief, among other things. How much plausibility should I expect from a movie like this? I don’t know. Wes Anderson is the only other director I know who plays with these kinds of elements, introducing clearly whimsical caricatures, and then making us halfway care about them, before pulling them back into the realm of the absurd.  I always feel like I have a hard time keeping my grip. If you love Wes Anderson’s films, you will probably love this.  For me. It ends up being a film I wish I liked more than I do.

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Posted in All Reviews, by Will Krischke.

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