Thursday, July 21, 2016

Hunt for the Wilderpeople

HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE           B                    
New Zealand  (101 mi)  2016  ‘Scope  d:  Taika Waititi                    Official site

The first New Zealand film to gross more than $1 million dollars on its opening weekend at the New Zealand box office, this is pure family entertainment, channeling the quirky, character-driven escapades of Wes Anderson, specifically 2012 Top Ten Films of the Year: #3 Moonrise Kingdom, creating a heartwarming story about a lost child, who’s only lost to the people seen in the story, as he’s center stage throughout the film where the audience knows where he is at all times.  Thriving on the outgoing, multi-faceted personality of a charming, overweight 13-year old child actor Julian Dennison playing a displaced Maori kid named Ricky Baker, described as “a real bad egg,” a comical misfit who’s been kicked around the block a few times, moving from group homes and foster families, but eventually running away or getting kicked out of every single placement after committing a series of seemingly neverending offenses so that now there’s no one left who wants him anymore except Aunty Bella (Rima Te Wiata), a rugged farmwife living out in the sticks with her cantankerous husband Hec (Sam Neill), both as wildly eccentric as Ricky himself.  The satiric tone of the film is set when the police arrive to a home in the middle of nowhere delivering this wayward kid to their door, where Paula (Rachel House), the child welfare services representative, hands him off to his new family like he’s damaged goods, claiming this is his last and final chance, as the welfare system itself is sick and tired of him, believing he might be better off in jail, but as he’s still a kid, they’re obligated to at least try to offer him some semblance of a better life.  After reading him the riot act, followed by a hilarious list of all his petty offenses, each one comically visualized, they depart, almost certain they’ll be back in a week to recollect him once again.  Ricky receives plenty of hugs and encouraging words from Aunty Bella welcoming him to the family while Uncle Hec and his dog Zag ignore him completely, hanging out in the barn instead hoping they never run into each other, as he’s obviously not too keen on the idea.  Nonetheless Bella stuffs him full of pancakes and pies and sausages and just about anything else he can eat as a sign of endearment, but this doesn’t stop him from making a break for it in the middle of the night, wandering into the vast unknown where Bella finds him in the morning not 200 yards from the house offering him some breakfast.

Told with amusing chapter headings, what’s apparent from the outstanding opening aerial shot whizzing just over the tops of the verdant mountains and vast extended wilderness of New Zealand is the natural beauty of the landscape, something put to good use in this film, as this is a home on such distant outskirts from civilization that there isn’t a single neighbor to be seen anywhere, where they’re really out on their own.  Perhaps the finest expression of the warmth and zaniness of his new home is the birthday song sung by Bella, Ricky baker birthday song full from the hunt for the wilderpeople YouTube (59 seconds), exhibiting lunacy and mad delight all at once, where Ricky is entranced while Hec can hardly believe his ears.  His birthday gift is a giant pit bull mix dog that he immediately names Tupac, so it comes as a huge surprise that shortly afterwards Bella dies unexpectedly, completely altering the balance of the universe for Ricky, as child services announces they’ll be out shortly to collect him, but not before the funeral services are held in a near empty church with the director serving as the minister, offering some puzzling and strangely ambiguous metaphors for the next stage in their lives which doesn’t really help them at all, but perhaps confuses things instead.  Weary of having to return to another institution, Ricky fakes his own death and runs away into the bush with his dog, accompanied by the jazzy music of Nina Simone, NINA SIMONE - Sinnerman (1965) [Video Clip] - YouTube (5:27), discovered shortly afterwards by Uncle Hec and his dog, combining forces while learning to survive in the wilderness, something Hec knows all too well, as its second nature to him.  Strangely, this is an inverse of Walkabout (1971), where here it’s the knowledge of a grizzly old white guy leading an urbanized young Maori child through the bush, where Ricky thinks it’s totally gangster to be avoiding the law, but he’s more of a pain in the ass to Hec than even he can imagine.  Nonetheless, in his own goofy way, he retains his comical sensibility throughout while Hec remains grumpy, dour, and ever stoic, barely able to tolerate a youngster that has no interest in listening or learning from him.  The two couldn’t be less alike, which becomes even more apparent when Hec stumbles on a rock and sprains an ankle, probably needing weeks to recover.  Channeling John Rambo in FIRST BLOOD (1982), Ricky goes into full survivor mode, Hunt for the Wilderpeople Movie CLIP - Hunting for Food (2016) - Sam Neill, Julian Dennison YouTube (55 seconds), mostly failing miserably in his efforts while Hec is a natural born wilderness man.

While Ricky goes missing, rumors abound with social advocates suggesting the grieving uncle has kidnapped the kid and gone mad in the wild, Hunt for the Wilderpeople Movie CLIP - Famous (2016) - Sam Neill, Rhys Darby Comedy HD YouTube (53 seconds), where a search party is dispatched that more closely resembles an exaggerated SWAT team, complete with riot gear, automatic weapons and bullet-proof attire, where Paula is leading the charge, megaphone in hand barking out instructions, where she has to be reminded that she’s not even a cop.  This does not deter her from appearing in front of TV cameras and announcing that “No child is left behind,” as if he’s been left and abandoned in a war zone.  The nation remains riveted to this developing manhunt, where Hec is being labelled a pervert with lascivious motives, becoming public enemy number one while behind the scenes, unbeknownst to anyone, he’s really more of the savior and guiding light.  The contrast between the two separate worlds is well drawn, where the intimacy in the wilderness, despite their initial suspicions and reservations, is actually a developing friendship, as Hec is actually saving Ricky from the forces of doom that intend to ruin his life, developing an “us against them” mentality, beautifully rendered in one of the most eloquent sequences in the film, a winter scene in the thick of the forest where they continually hide from the pursuing soldiers set to the music of Leonard Cohen, “The Song of the Partisan,” La Résistance/the partisan-Leonard Cohen - YouTube (3:34).  This is exquisite filmmaking, reminiscent of the barren harshness in the Scandinavian film King of Devil's Island (Kongen av Bastøy) (2010) featuring a similar prison break in the snow, adding a surprising degree of complexity and depth to what is ostensibly a children’s story.  While much of this turns out to be a chase film, continually pursued by the authorities, where arch rivals Ricky and Paula come close enough at one point separated by a ravine to exchange trash talk:    

Ricky Baker: I’ll never stop running! 
Paula: Yeah, and I'll never stop chasing you – I’m relentless, I’m like the Terminator. 
Ricky Baker: I’m more like the Terminator than you! 
Paula: I said it first, you’re more like Sarah Connor, and in the first movie too, before she could do chinups.

Adapted by the director from Barry Crump’s short comic novel Wild Pork And Watercress (1986), this zany mood is sustained throughout the film, mixing in strange social references and a collection of oddball characters to this already mismatched couple, becoming a coming-of-age, buddy movie where braving the elements becomes a battle of self-sufficiency, growing up and learning to trust oneself, where fantasy and humor are interspersed with expressive language and moments of tenderness, all part of the learning experience Ricky so reluctantly embarked upon in the first place.  Despite the obstacles, and the director throws plenty at them, the outlaw pair on the run cunningly displays a healthy degree of wit and charm, including a brief diversion into a Maori family that accepts Ricky without question, as he’s become a folk hero as a slippery fugitive on the lam with his photos plastered all over TV, seen taking selfies eventually posted on the Internet, where the missing kid becomes something of a rock star.  This has all the makings of a delightful children’s movie that’s just clever enough to be suitable for adults as well. 

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