Review: Hunt for the Wilderpeople, B+
Rated PG-13, 101 minutes
The hilarious, touching New Zealand-made action dramedy "Hunt for the Wilderpeople" has already become one of New Zealand's highest grossing films, and it's likely to win you over too. A charming, offbeat crowd-pleaser, "Wilderpeople" is from New Zealand director and writer Taika Watiti, who was responsible for such critically acclaimed fare as "Boy" and "What We Do in the Shadows." Ricky Baker (newcomer Julian Dennison), a defiant young city kid, is sent by child welfare services to live in the country with foster Aunt Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and cantankerous foster Uncle Hec (Sam Neill). When Bella suddenly passes away and child services decide to take Ricky back to a care home, Ricky runs away into the bush with uncle Hec in pursuit. Child services arrive to find the house empty, and come to the conclusion a bereaved and mentally unstable Hec has abducted Ricky. A national manhunt ensues, and the two have to get over their differences to survive. The unsentimental yet touching chemistry of the leads, unconventional plot and the breakout turn from the young, portly Dennison make Watiti's "Hunt for the Wilderpeople" a pleasant surprise that's much funnier than it looks in the trailers or on paper. While offbeat, it's also director Watiti's (who cameos in a hilariously brief scene in a church as the priest officiating a service) most accessible film to date, and also one of his funnier ones. "Jurassic Park's" Neill, an Irish-born New Zealand actor and easily the name actor in the film, headlines an unknown New Zealand cast, but they're all terrific and funny in their own way, particularly Dennison (also seen the critically acclaimed "Paper Planes") steals the show in the film's most memorable turn as the kid of great size who also has a big heart and marches to the beat of his own drum - literally he does in one of the film's most hilarious scenes. Watiti's uses the lovely New Zealand countryside here, and peppers the film with a highly unconventional, 1980s-like synthesized score that works remarkably well given the setting. A couple of minor detractions: the unnecessary use of "Chapter" headings, which occasionally breaks the narrative flow, and the weak car-chase climax that seems modeled after "Thelma & Louise." You'll laugh, you'll cry (especially at Hec's final haiku), but the entertaining and funny "Hunt for the Wilderpeople" is a foreign film that deserves to be seen.