Looking back at 2016, a splendid family entertainer that did not quite hit the mainstream radar was a little gem from New Zealand, The Hunt for the Wilderpeople. This little gem from Taika Waititi is a sensitive, colorful and personal story about relationships and it presents the magnificent vistas of New Zealand that we first encountered awe-struck in The Lord of the Rings. It is just as magical, even without all the magic. The lively bush is threatening and enticing at the same time. Sam Neill is in top child-hating form as he gruffly lumbers on screen with a kid he would rather not be with (not like real child-hating but his Jurassic Park style ‘I would rather do this adventure without children’ style child-hating). And talking about children, very few movies manage to draw out a good performance from a kid – and this movie does a fantastic job with (then 12-13 year old) Julian Dennison – an unapologetic city-slicking rogue that you cannot help but adore by the end of the film. Dennison’s impeccable acting chops aside, it is refreshing to see a movie with a protagonist who does not look like a ‘movie-star’ – a trap that Hollywood often falls into. The main bush-survival plot is simple and effective. It lives up to its promise of offering grand vistas as well as thrilling moments of adventure. But the thing that the film does best, arguably better than many of other films is to [SPOILER] kill off a beloved main character within the first ten minutes of the film. [/SPOILER]
To state the obvious, killing off a fan-favorite or major character is something that many TV shows and films have done over the years. It is used as a necessary plot point to further the story. However, the sudden demise of such characters at the beginning of the film or TV show are rarer, simply because to build a convincingly significant pay-off at such a short time is one of the rarest things in cinema. While some films have taken on this challenge to deliver a tragic blow tragic (such as in the Pixar animated classic Up) or to bait and switch for comedic effect (as seen in the obscure film version of Reno 911, where The Rock makes a fantastic 2-minute cameo). At times, such early departures are used to simply jolt the audience out of their complacency – as famously handled by Game of Thrones. The Hunt for the Wilderpeople is one of best uses of this difficult to master trope – as it uses to the exit of a favorite character to highlight the character’s lingering presence throughout the film. The kind foster-mother’s unexpected demise sets the remaining main characters on a course of recognizing the seemingly unbridgeable gap between their two lives. While the film uses some familiar tropes of the Odd Couple, the main narrative of the film is not one of against the odds reconciliation; instead, it is a recuperative narrative where two characters come to terms with their shared loss by recognizing that their loss is the only thing that connects them. With unconditional generousity and non-judgmental love, Rima Te Wiata’s performance as Aunt Bella is true to the name, it is simply beautiful.
The supporting characters who try to “rescue” the boy they assume to have been kidnapped are consistently hilarious without being reduced to caricatures. At the end of the film, unlike others where authority figures look for children, you get a feeling that these characters genuinely are looking out for the best interests of the kid. The child services officer Paula (Rachel House) is a formidable presence who steals every scene she is in. The film portrays authority with a tongue-in-cheek acknowledgement of the influences from popular culture. Paula in her domineering best, reads out the Miranda rights at a certain point in the film, only to be reminded that they don’t do that in New Zealand.
The film’s director Taika Waititi made his feature length debut with another amazing small film Eagle vs. Shark and is currently making a not-so-small film for Marvel, Thor: Ragnarok. While many see this as a great opportunity for the filmmaker to move to a bigger budget and a wider canvas, I also see it as an important step in the evolution of Marvel movies, as this could be their chance to bring his small film charm and intimate character aesthetic to their inter-planetary monster. Of course, that might be a lot to ask in a movie where the Hulk is set to have gladiator battles, but one can always wish for a better product.
To sum up, if you are Instead of a trailer (which you can see here), I am convinced that this clip conveys the spirit of the movie:
SARAVANAN MANI is editor and contributing writer here at ScreenEthics.com. He is a graduate student at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, pursuing a PhD in English focusing on American Crime Television.