Director Taika Waititi’s “What We Do in the Shadows” was, without question, my favorite comedy of 2015. With that said, you can definitely be sure I was highly anticipating what he’d do next in the realm of cinema, with this year’s festival darling “Hunt for the Wilderpeople.” In this venture, you can tell Waititi (what a fun name to type) felt it necessary to show a more exploratory side in storytelling and filmmaking. He displays a more sensitive, backstory-driven side while also giving us the seemingly-improvised humorous scenes we’re more familiar with. This movie definitely has end-of-year top 10 potential, but let’s dive into specifics.
First off, the casting is pretty off-the-charts perfection in this flick. That could possibly either be a luxury or a downfall of an independent movie, depending on the director, but here, Waititi makes the effort to gather the best possible talent for a role, and not necessarily a household name. First you have newcomer (to most) Julian Dennison as trouble-making youngster, Ricky Baker; a character name we’ll all remember for years to come. This kid just oozes charm and relatability, even for someone who fancies himself an outsider to society. When he delivers his famous haikus, sometimes they’re full of lots of heart and yearning to just belong somewhere, and you can feel that in Dennison’s performance. On the opposite side of the spectrum, you have Sam Neill portraying lone-wolf curmudgeon (Don’t Call Me) Uncle Hec(tor) in a role he was born to play, even after all his contributions to film. If I analyze his character a bit too much here, we end up talking spoilers, and you all know I prefer to avoid that. I will say, there’s definitely a reason for Hec’s bitterness and desires to remain alone, and I know his character sounds like a cliche as I write it, but trust me, you begin to care for both characters equally before the end-credits roll.
Other great side characters include Psycho Sam (portrayed by the reliably-funny Rhys Darby), the heartwarming Aunt Bella (played, unfortunately rather briefly, by Rima Te Wiata), and even Waititi himself sneaks in there to have some fun as in a cameo as a Minister. As you might expect from a Waititi-written/directed movie, there’s a really great bit of banter between this Minister and a churchgoer during a super awkward sermon that had me in stitches. I think the 2 characters we didn’t really expect to steal the show, but do in their own way are Rachel House’s Paula and Oscar Kightley’s Andy. Paula is a rather unforgiving social worker who feels compelled to chase after Ricky when he goes missing, and Andy is her bumbling, police officer sidekick of sorts. These 2 just have the most ridiculous interactions in dialogue, and House as the antagonist really has great chemistry with Dennison.
Visually, I feel Waititi really captures the entire essence of New Zealand; first he films almost every corner of the cities in 2015’s “Shadows”, then he tackles the mountainous, beautiful side of the country we all know from “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy in this film. I can’t help but feel compelled to visit this country at some point in my life based on these astounding cinematic images. This movie has a recurring theme of city people attempting to acclimate or become one with nature, and this was definitely the right place to represent that.
Ultimately, you’ll really want to see this movie before the year ends. It has a lot of homages and direct shout-outs to various iconic film moments we know and love in a respectful way while also maintaining its own confident identity. There’s a lot to acknowledge and adore in both of our protagonists, and we grow with them as the story unfolds. That sounds really corny, but it’s 100% accurate for this gem of a movie. With this charming plot having ran its course, all of us Marvel nerds are waiting with bated breath to see how such a diverse, quirky director like Waititi tackles a “Thor” sequel next! While we’re in the present though with this movie, it’s definitely got something personal and hilarious for everyone.