At this point, it seems as if most critics have written off this summer movie season as a bit of a loss. But to be fair, I feel like most summer movie seasons aren’t a great time for people with actual decent taste in movies, considering it’s a time of year rife with box office dominance by slap-dash junk like Suicide Squad and blandly inoffensive animated features like The Secret Life Of Pets to keep the kids entertained until school starts up again. Still, looking back, it is a bit telling that this summer movie season’s most pleasant surprises where sequels like Finding Dory or Star Trek Beyond, which were fine, but far from being movies we haven’t already seen before.
Also, to be fair, I still haven’t seen the well-reviewed recent studio releases Pete’s Dragon or Sausage Party, which may be good, I don’t know. But I guess the summer of 2016 has just felt like one more indicator that Hollywood filmmaking as we know it could conceivably be on its way out pretty soon. And the truth is, I don’t really care. If Hollywood is going to be just some other American industry ruled with a monopoly-like iron fist by one giant corporation (like in this case Disney), I say burn it down. Burn the whole god damn thing down, because whatever the fuck you call this era of filmmaking is not what attracted me to movies in the first place.
Though, I say that not really knowing whether however good the big studio pictures are doing has any effect — positive or negative — on the smaller indie releases as a whole. I’m sure there is data I could go look up and see whether smaller indie theaters do better when the film industry in general is doing better, but I kinda just feel like that graph would just look like two parallel lines on a straight decline towards cultural irrelevance. But whatever the case is, I feel like the summer movie season is usually a good time to seek out better, smaller movies, since as crappy as this current crappy blockbuster movie season has been, it’s not the first. And though I didn’t encounter as many indie gems as I would’ve liked this summer, an offbeat charmer like Hunt For The Wilderpeople was a welcome addition to summer moviedom nonetheless.
At first glance, you could say there are a lot of elements of Hunt For The Wilderpeople that do seem a little familiar, like the fact that it centers on the kind of classic dynamic of a rascally young boy and a cranky old man. This boy being Ricky Baker (played by Julian Dennison), a first-class troublemaker who’s gone from foster home to foster home before being placed by child protective services to live with a couple residing out in the New Zealand countryside. Ricky’s new mum Bella (Rima Te Wiata) takes an instant shine to Ricky, while her husband Hec, the aforementioned cranky old man (Sam Neill) doesn’t have much interest in being Ricky’s new adopted father. However, when Bella suddenly dies, Hec is left to take care of Ricky, and as the constantly moving Ricky is wont to do, he runs away from home, which eventually devolves into a misinterpreted kidnapping once Hec finds him, and the film kind of turns into an on-the-run/chase movie from there on out.
Since I’ve never seen either Boy or Eagle vs. Shark, it was nice to get a bit of a sense of what Taika Waititi can do on his own as a director with Hunt For The Wilderpeople. Because now that I’m thinking of it, both last year’s hilarious What We Do In The Shadows and the immortal Flight Of The Concords (the only other Waititi projects I’m familiar with) were done in collaboration with his frequent comedic partner Jemaine Clement. And what we get here is something a little more heartfelt and sincere, as a distinct father/son-like relationship is certainly at the heart of this film. But there’s still a substantial amount of deadpan absurdism that runs through the film, such as a blackly comic funeral scene in which Waititi himself plays a priest who laments the copious amount of snacks that await beyond death’s door.
Another thing I appreciated about Hunt For The Wilderpeople was that despite the fact that Waititi has now achieved a level of success to be accepted into the fraternity of Marvel filmmakers (as he’s supposedly been tapped to direct the new Thor), he still has a clear affinity for his homeland of New Zealand. I feel like it can often be hard for an audience to get behind a bratty little kid in any movie, but the fact that the young New Zealand actor Julian Dennison is fun to watch in pretty much every scene certainly speaks to his innate charm. And meanwhile, the rest of the cast is filled with a bunch of great New Zealand talent who were unknown to me other than Sam Neil (perhaps one of New Zealand’s most famous sons) and the always welcome Rhys Darby.
Also, I just love the way the landscape of New Zealand is used in this movie. For what is essentially a character-driven comedy, there are a lot of sweeping helicopter shots where the rolling hills and endless greenery of this country that hardly anyone knows anything about is on full display. And because the film is about these characters that are kind of at odds against nature while also being at odds with each other, Hunt For The Wilderpeople somehow totally earns being as pretty as it is, when you’d think that a movie with this much goofiness in it wouldn’t have any right to be this pretty. It’s that sense of scope that I assume is whatever drove those Marvel dudes to tap Waititi to direct one of their movies, while also probably banking on him being able to make it like, you know, Lord Of The Rings.