Hunt for the Wilderpeople ***½|****

Julian Dennison and Sam Neill in Hunt for the Wilderpeople
Julian Dennison and Sam Neill in Hunt for the Wilderpeople

It seems New Zealand director Taika Waititi is on a roll after following up the funniest movie of last year, the vampire mockumentary What We Do In The Shadows, with this utterly charming and heart-warming adventure comedy. Unlike most animated movies released these days, Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a rare family entertainment that actually feels like it was made to work for every person in the family, regardless of how young or old they may be. It has the kind of intelligent storytelling and emotional framework that will earn the respect of the parents but also has plenty of sight gags and silliness to keep kids engaged too.

The story follows a rabble-rousing orphan boy named Ricky (Julian Dennison) as he is assigned by child welfare services to live with his foster Aunt Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and Uncle Hec (Sam Neill) out in the New Zealand countryside. After an unexpected tragedy, Ricky learns that he will soon be taken back into government custody and in an act of defiance, he chooses to run away into the dense forest. Uncle Hec eventually finds Ricky in the woods but with both missing for a substantial amount of time, the public soon begins to fear that Hec has kidnapped Ricky and a national manhunt is undergone to retrieve the two.

Hec and Ricky are a classic pair of comedic opposites: the former is a quiet and reserved countryman focused solely on survival instincts while the latter is a troubled hooligan who compensates for his insecurities with a boisterous swagger and “gangster” affectations. As the straight man, Sam Neill has the perfect level of incredulity in each of his deadpan reactions and Julian Dennison’s antics are outrageous without veering into full-on obnoxious territory. The way that these two play off one another and eventually grow to understand each other resembled a more extreme version of the kind of relationship Carl and Russell had during the middle section of Pixar’s sublime Up.

This movie has a similar level of pathos and tender moments but it also packs in plenty of laughs along the way. There’s a certain strange, off-kilter quality to Waititi’s sense of humor that I personally find to be infectious and oddly inviting. Characters often use silence and “dead space” for longer than it seems like they should and those breaks give an unexpected timing to the punchlines when they do hit. When Bella sings an ebullient impromptu birthday song for Ricky, it’s Hec’s visible signs of discomfort and Ricky’s admirable show of support that keeps the ridiculous song from seeming tedious and needlessly drawn out.

With its playful tone and its rustic nature setting, I also found parallels to Wes Anderson’s coming-of-age movie Moonrise Kingdom, in which Tilda Swinton played an antagonist literally named “Social Services” who mirrors the hilariously unrelenting social worker played by Rachel House in this film. Flight of the Conchords favorite Rhys Darby even turns up briefly in the third act as a zany survivalist who isn’t quite as well prepared for sudden contingencies as he thinks he is. No matter what age you are, Hunt for the Wilderpeople is delightful entertainment through and through.