This three-letter word is simplistic in its connotation but quite complex in form. In other words, there are many routes one could take to have fun in the movies. Fun can describe being scared watching a horror film. Fun can also describe a hilarious comedy, the absorbing images of science-fiction, or a sweeping tale of adventure. It is the product of buying into the world the filmmakers have illustrated for you and playing along, with the emphasis on playing. New Zealand filmmaker Taika Waititi is one of the craftiest filmmakers of fun in the world. With each of his films (his previous being Boy and What We Do In the Shadows), Waititi creates prime example after prime example as to, arguably, why movies should always be seen as entertainment.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople is probably the most fun I have had all year in a film. But it is not because it is, from start to finish, hilarious. Shadows induced far more laughter than this film because of its multilayered absurdity. Rather, Wilderpeople, along with being potently comical, throws in many instances of pathos, contemplation, loneliness, action, melancholy, and physicality; a cornucopia of drama and vibrancy. How Waititi and his crew manage to balance all of this without unwanted enforcement is rendered a wonderment.
When Ricky (Julian Dennison), an orphan bouncing around foster homes like a pinball, happens upon his next stay with an eccentric couple living out in the country, this once detached kid experience for the first time what it means to be wanted. Well, his mother, Bella, exhibits such care while his father, Hec (Sam Neil) sort of grunts and disdains the idea of a kid. Nevertheless, Bella's combative enthusiasm and optimism tranquilizes the unruly nature of Ricky, especially after he witnesses her killing of a warthog, a surprise to us all.
Utopian living soon vanishes in an instant when a terrible event happens, causing Ricky to run away into the woods, where he is soon found by Hec who, out or reluctance and necessity, must bring him back to society. Much to Hec's dismay, they end up stranded in the woods and news breaks out that he has kidnapped Ricky among other things, launching a national manhunt for the two.
Interior locations are scarce throughout the film and when Ricky is placed inside most of the shots make it look like the walls shackle him if they are not already depressing him by their plain banality. It sits in opposition to the tall trees, twisting roots, and undulating mountain ranges that he and Hec traverse through most of the film. Yes, there is The Lord of the Rings, but if there was any film that served as an ode to the magnificent and august landscape of New Zealand, it is this one. Drone shots dominant many of the expositional sequences, gliding over a lush canopy and through thin fog. Getting lost is not just reserved for the protagonists; it is easy for us to let loose our wandering eyes upon New Zealand, totally independent of the plot.
That is not to say the plot is flimsy. It plays out episodically, where the the journey to evade authorities is interrupted by a series of different scenarios or the occasional revealing conversation, as two individuals who wanted nothing to do with each other become dependent on each other not just in a sense of survival in the woods but of survival of their humanity.
Of course, familiarity with Waititi's worlds means there is an expectation of quirkiness. The New Zealand landscape is doused in such lovable idiosyncrasies from the most benign dialogue between Ricky and Hec to the outlandish conspiracy theorist they come across later on. But more crucially, the characters share both an eccentric nature of being themselves but also hold such sympathetic humanity within them and this is where the effective performances of both Julian Dennison and Sam Neill really illuminate. They create binding chemistry as they insult their way into reverence. Many of the secondary players, including a memorable horseback-riding girl and her father, exhibit charm that adds to the brilliantly weird tapestry of characters Waititi is known for. In regards to Dennison, his flexibility as a young actor is refreshing, exhibiting a natural instinct of comedic pacing but also indelible examples of disappointment, particularly in moments where he is immobile and indoors.
While this film has no extraordinary moments or moments of revelatory exuberance, it is a sweet adventure tale with a pridefully moralistic form. That it came out in the summer in the USA underlines a rather subtle connection it has with the summer blockbuster of yore, the ones created by Speilberg, like Jaws and Raiders of the Lost Ark, in which adventure combined a rather modern swashbuckling affair with emotional weight to create a balance of many feelings and spectacles. Hunt for the Wilderpeople is an insightful comedy on loneliness, peppered with mirth and eclat, dancing haphazardly without care, and ultimately displaying both uniqueness and warmth.
In other words, it is fun.