At this year's Sundance Film Festival, I got to see an early screening of Hunt For The Wilderpeople, the latest offering from New Zealand director (and Flight Of The Conchords alumnus) Taika Waititi. Known for the likes of Eagle Vs Shark and What We Do In The Shadows, he's also about to join the Marvel Cinematic Universe as director of Thor: Ragnarok, the latest in the studio's line of offbeat and unexpected helmer hires. Landing the superhero gig means Hunt For The Wilderpeople will be scrutinised extremely closely in some quarters. It's a relief to report, then, that it's bloody brilliant.
Even without Thor 3 in the pipeline, expectations would have been high after the critical success of cult vampire mockumentary What We Do In The Shadows, which revitalised a couple of genres in one hilarious swoop. Wilderpeople doesn't contain any fantasy creatures, per se, and it's set in the real world, albeit a heightened comedic version of it, but don't let this put you off.
The story kicks off when troubled foster kid Ricky (Julian Dennison, one of this year's great Sundance breakouts), is taken in by an unassuming couple who live on a remote farm. City boy (and wannabe gangster rapper) Ricky, takes some time to adjust to his new digs, but starts to warm to the place, thanks in part to the kindness of 'Auntie' Bella (Rima Te Wiata), and the dog that he's given to look after. Bella's gruff husband, Hector (Sam Neill), isn't so quick to warm to the new houseguest.
Hector and Ricky are forced into an odd-couple alliance though, when a series of events sees them on the run together in the woods, with the experienced bushman teaching his young companion the knack of outdoor life. Given that Ragnarok is set to be a buddy-comedy road trip teaming Thor with the Hulk, Wilderpeople's central pairing bodes well.
Neill provides a sturdy sense of cantankerous gravitas, but Dennison is a revelation. Like the kid from Up made live-action, he displays spot-on comedy chops and makes Ricky endearing when he could have easily been irritating in the wrong hands. It's hard to believe anyone could finish the film not wanting to be his grouchy uncle. As his relationship with Hector develops, the film manages to be moving without ever becoming cloying or overly sentimental. There's a genuine sense of adventure, and even a giant beastie to contend with too, as the reluctant father and son cut a path through the bush.
The laughs are also aided by a spot-on support cast, from Rachel House's jumped-up Child Services officer, to Oscar Kightley's dopey copper. Waititi (who took one of the lead roles in Shadows) also cameos, but he's outshone by Rhys Darby, who gets a guest spot to rival Shadows "werewolves, not swearwolves" bit. At this rate, Waititi's going to have to find a role for his lucky charm as a dorky Asgardian.
And despite having one of the Sundanciest titles of the year, Hunt For The Wilderpeople never runs the risk of disappearing into a black hole of quirkiness. It's very cine-literate, with references to The Terminator and Lord of the Rings just part of the fun. There's also a brisk, Edgar Wright-esque energy to the editing that serves the story rather than detracting from it (the mini-montage of Ricky's 'criminal' misdeeds being a particular winner). With tons of heart and a steady stream of laugh-out-loud moments, it's hard to imagine Sundance will screen a more charming adventure this year. Bring on Thor: Ragnarok!
Images: Hunt For The Wilderpeople