Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) is a "bad egg" who is sent out to the New Zealand bush to live with two foster parents, the warm-hearted and kind Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and the gruff and sullen Hector (Sam Neill). However, after a sudden tragedy, Hector and Ricky go missing in the bush and a national manhunt gets underway to bring them in.
On-screen chemistry is the cornerstone of any good film. If two actors can't convince you of their relationship - whether it's antagonistic, romantic, whatever - then the film falls flat and the rest is just window-dressing. With Hunt For The Wilderpeople, indie comedy director Taika Waititi's sparkling comedy, the on-screen chemistry between Sam Neill and Julian Dennison just leaps out of the screen in a way that hasn't been seen in quite some time.
The film opens with Julian Dennison's character, Ricky, being brought to the bush to meet Hec (Sam Neill) and Bella (Rima Te Wiata) by child services agent Paula (Rachel House) and loveable policeman Andy (Oscar Kightley). Ricky is described as a bad egg who needs some stability and the idea is that living with Hec and Bella will provide that. Without giving too much away, Ricky and Hec eventually end up stranded out in the bush after an accident and are living a spartan existence together that's not unlike Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom or Pixar's Up. Before long, the authorities are brought in to track them and the two are considered fugitives from justice, much to Ricky's delight and Hec's annoyance.
Julian Dennison plays Ricky completely straight; he's a bad egg who likes rap music, gangster iconography and has a brightness and innocence that's truly affecting. This is in comparison to Sam Neill's minimalist, roughly-hewn Hector, who's all glowering eyes above a scraggly beard and barely restrained anger. Essentially, they're playing the same character but at different points in their life. Ricky is an angry young man with a curiosity about the world whilst Sam Neill is an angry old man's who seen enough of the world to know he's better off away from it. The dynamic that forms between them, although unoriginal, serves as the beating heart of the film. The way to work off one another is just a delight, trading barbs with one another on a regular basis and generally having the sort of jovial antagonism that makes from great comedy.Meanwhile, Rachel House's child services agent who tracks the two across the New Zealand bush is just pitch-perfect in her role, playing it like a cartoon villain in the best way possible. The film flicks back to her and her henchman / policeman companion Andy every so often as she hunts them, providing a nice little roadmap for where Hec and Ricky are and how long they've been in hiding.
Essentially, the story is about hiding from responsibilities and enjoying freedom for its own merit - something that could be easily paralleled to writer / director Taiki Waititi, as he heads into the Marvel factory with Thor: Ragnarok. The direction and cinematography is bright, clean and finely tuned to create an almost dreamlike, surreal atmosphere in places. The best comparison to it is like watching a New Zealand version of a Wes Anderson film without the contrived sentimentality or purposefully weird production design. The screenplay and dialogue has a natural flow and sense to it and the emotional beats in the story, particularly at the start and in the finale, are heart-wrenching. Based on folk hero Barry Crump's novel, Taika Waiti correctly understands that the script doesn't need unnecessary embellishments or needless exposition. Instead, its charm lies in its simplicity and self-sufficient nature - just like the characters.
Lovingly made, frequently and equally hilarious and emotional, Hunt For The Wilderpeople is a cracking film with a huge heart and two of the best comedic performances of the year. Highly recommended.