Movie News & Reviews

Sam Neill anchors hilarious ‘Hunt for the Wilderpeople,’ a New Zealand comedy

Julian Dennison, left, and Sam Neill star in “Hunt for the Wilderpeople.”
Julian Dennison, left, and Sam Neill star in “Hunt for the Wilderpeople.” The Orchid

“Hunt for the Wilderpeople” is the kind of adorable, coming-of-age dramedy that Pixar would create if it made live-action movies and not cartoons. It’s a well-told adventure spoof with a delinquent kid played by newcomer Julian Dennison and a gruff codger played by veteran Sam Neill, on the run from the cops.

It’s crammed with remarkable jokes and great performances, heart-twanging moments of pathos, awesome cinematography and a sense of rambunctious creative joy. This is the kind of independently produced delight that studios have abandoned, touching sweetness without saccharine schmaltz.

Dennison’s Ricky is a preteen headache for the child welfare services and the foster families to which bureaucrats assign him. He’s in trouble for “breaking stuff, stealing stuff, hitting stuff, kicking stuff and setting stuff on fire.”

Never nasty but usually naughty, he’s a troublemaker largely because he’s troubled himself, a chubby baby pretending to be a gangsta.

As an 11th-hour effort to keep him out of juvenile prison, the authorities place him with two backwoods guardians. Warm Aunt Bella (Rima Te Wiata) loves him like a new pet in their shabby cabin; her dismissive husband, Uncle Hec (Neill), regards Ricky as if he’s not housebroken.

The creator of this charmer is Taiki Waititi. If you weren’t lucky enough to see his offbeat vampire mockumentary “What We Do in the Shadows” or HBO’s comedy series “Flight of the Conchords,” you might have missed him.

That won’t last.

He’s directing Marvel’s upcoming Thor movie, “Ragnarok,” and he scripted Disney’s upcoming animated feature “Moana.” An excellent actor himself, he appears in this movie as an awkward pastor who turns a funeral service into a nitwit farce.

None of the story’s excellent twists and surprises will be spoiled here. Just know that Hec and Ricky go AWOL in the vast forest, and the boy’s social worker, Paula (Rachel House), assumes it is a child abduction requiring a national manhunt. Paula, a cocky idiot who gets everything wrong, is wrong again. The pair’s push-pull relationship leads to some scares but largely draws them closer together.

Digging herself ever deeper into absurdity, Paula launches a pursuit with battalions of police that descends into classic 1970s chase-movie car-flipping. Waititi creates a panoramic 720-degree camera turn across a large collection of characters outdoors to advance the story by weeks without dull old-school exposition.

Neill offers a master class on how to be sidesplitting without cracking a single smile. You may have seen unlikely interracial and cross-generational buddy comedies before, but nothing as hip and engaging as this goofy comedy of errors. It is good in every way a family movie can be.

Movie review

‘Hunt for the Wilderpeople’

Rated PG-13 for thematic elements including violent content, and for some language. 1:41. Kentucky.