– by David Morgan-Brown
Sorely enough, there’s a very real underrepresentation of comedy feature films from Australasia, with very few comedic folks from down under in this region of the southern hemisphere getting any international (or even domestic) attention. Yet the filmmaker who is making good on consistently putting out comedy film one after the other, that actually attracts international attention (and acclaim) is New Zealander Taika Waititi. After working on the popular Kiwi comedy show Flight of the Conchords, he directed Eagle vs Shark (2007), Boy (2010), and hit his stride with the semi-cult hit What We Do in the Shadows (2014). Now he follows up his most popular and successful work with a film that has the ingredients to be as big a hit.
Young Ricky Baker (Julian Bennison) is a bit of a delinquent who gets taken by child services and sent to live in the country-side with his new eager foster mother Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and his new resistant foster father Hec (Sam Neill). Feeling uneasy in his new home and all the new unexpected circumstances coming the family’s way, Ricky heads out to the woods to evade both Hec and child services – but soon enough, due to a series of odd contrivances, Ricky and Hec are banded together.
Seeing the relationship form between Ricky and Hec is fairly heart-warming and amusing, with Hec’s very outward hostility towards his new adoptive son-by-proxy testing this new fatherly friendship, and the humour that comes out of this is fairly funny. The problem is the story that houses these jokes and characters, which really makes little sense – after a tired and long-running gag about a miscommunication that leads the authorities to believe Hec has molested Ricky, the two then have to team up and escape the authorities together, which climaxes with an action-style car-chase. Big leaps are made to stitch this convoluted story together, which makes it confusing, makes the characters’ motivations unspecific, and overall makes it harder to laugh.
Playing the young and troubled lead role, Bennison’s confident performance as this sort of character fits the role like a snug Nike Air. His acting doesn’t feel like it’s hitting very strong heights, but it seems he was easily able to get into this angsty, edgy faux-gangsta pre-teen, with a thirst for branching out into unplanned adventures and a hunger for snacks.
I wanted to like this film more than I did since, as a comedy, it felt like it had promise to deliver joke after joke, with the laughs provided when the film is setting up its story and nicely introducing us to the characters (through the snappiness of the delivery and editing). But as it goes on and settles into itself, the laughs are still consistent, if you’re willing to accept how little sense a lot of them make.
A decent and admirable effort from Waititi, who seems to need a little smoothing out of his films (specifically the screenplays and synopsises) to make them work to their full potential. The film also display the talents of Ricky Baker, who can pull off the snarky charisma really well in his own Kiwi flavour, I’m hoping there’ll be more to see of him. If you can forgive the half-formed concept, then maybe Hunt for the Wilderpeople will provide you with enough laughs and cross-country adventures to satisfy as a light comedy.