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Director: Taika Waititi
It’s hard to imagine Taika Waititi delivering the next Thor instalment after his cinematic catalogue of New Zealand stories, from Boy to What We do in the Shadows. It’s a hell of a career leap to make. However, if he aspires to permanently shift into Hollywood blockbusters, then at least his latest work Hunt for the Wilderpeople will cement his legacy as one of the most influential in NZ film comedies.
Barry Crump’s 1986 novel, Wild Pork and Watercress, has been given a revival from the ten cent shelf at your local library, with Waititi adapting the classic for Hunt for the Wilderpeople. The narrative is very similar in the two versions. A foster kid, Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) finds a suitable home in a dilapidated farmhouse in the rural east North Island with an overly enthused adoptive mother, Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and her dismissive husband Hector (Sam Neill). Hector’s week long attempt to retrieve an Ricky after an escape attempt results in an erroneous allegation of kidnapping and molestation, and the pair use the bush to elude the authorities and a violently dedicated jobsworth from Child Welfare, Paula (Rachel House).
Watching Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a showcase of Waititi’s technical competence. Sure, the NZ backdrop does some heavy lifting to make the film look great, but his continual use of under-lighting on characters runs parallel to the way the landscape is represented. It emphasizes key themes (like abandonment) and quite simply, makes the film beautiful to look at. Adding to its visual appeal, the film uses a lot of natural lighting—adding to the crisp, and at times, gloomy, picturesque New Zealand landscape.
That’s not to say it wasn’t a well-financed film, though, because it was. There are CGI animals that look state of the art, and the action sequences that incorporate them are seamless. If it wasn’t for the constant sight of Swanndris, one might be uncertain whether it was in fact a NZ film.
The film uses a lot of archaic technology, from vintage computers to the trustworthy Nokia brick. I always assumed this was to make fun of NZ’s laggard reputation, but Waititi has described his use of obsolete technology as a way of making the film timeless. His argument: with iterations of technology being released every year, what’s the point of shooting scenes with the latest technology when the movie release date is usually a year after filming; it will look irrelevant anyway. It’s a solid point, and the film indeed looks timeless. Plus, the inclusion of 80s technology and motifs help connect the Wild Pork and Watercress context to Waititi’s interpretation, which is nice for the Crump fans.
It doesn’t feel like a tired Sam Neill cliché for his character to go from kid-resenting grump to fully realized paternal symbol, when everything else about the characters works so well. Though both flawed, Neill’s and Dennison’s characters are so, so charming on-screen and are fully apt at weaving through the dramatic, comedic, and sad points of the script. There is no point in the film where the acting loses energy.
Many will agree this is the best NZ film of all time. As Waititi makes like Lee Tomahori and directs behemoth action films—hopefully with better critical success—this parting gift will be treasured, especially for future NZ filmmakers who are inspired by Waititi’s cinematic benchmark. And, above all, expect to see Crump’s novel, once the staple of a thrift store, in the bestseller list for Whitcoulls.