Review: Taika Waititi's 'Hunt For The Wilderpeople' Is A New Childhood Classic

Note: With Hunt for the Wilderpeople in limited release this weekend, we're re-running our review from the Sundance Film Festival.Taika Waititi had a minor breakthrough last year with What We Do in the Shadows, and is about to have a much bigger one with Thor: Ragnarok, but in between he's managed to squeeze in the delightful Hunt for the Wilderpeople. A sort of live-action Up with dashes of Roald Dahl, Wes Anderson, and Thelma & Louise, all filtered through Waititi's own warm, offbeat sense of humor, Wilderpeople looks destined to become a new childhood classic.

Based on a novel by New Zealand author Barry CrumpHunt for the Wilderpeople follows Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison), a city kid described by his cartoonishly off-putting social services worker Paula (Rachel House) as "a really bad egg" – breaking stuff, stealing stuff, hitting stuff, and setting stuff on fire are among the many sins he's committed. He's sent to live with his aunt Bella (Rima Te Wiata) on a remote farm, and though he resists at first, her unconditional, matter-of-fact affection wins him over, and he eventually warms to his new life.

Just then, of course, tragedy strikes. Ricky decides he'd rather fend for himself than get re-absorbed into the social services system, so he fakes his death (poorly) and runs away into the New Zealand bush. His uncle Hec (Sam Neill), a cranky grifter who never wanted to take Ricky in in the first place, follows him into the bush to find him. If you've seen Up, or really any buddy comedy, you can probably guess what happens next: Hec has no use for Ricky, but circumstances conspire to keep them together. Meanwhile, a nationwide manhunt begins for Ricky and Hec, considered armed and dangerous, with Paula leading the charge.

Wilderpeople isn't a fantasy, per se, but it's grounded in the same sort of exaggerated kid logic that guides children's stories like James and the Giant Peach and Matilda. (And the whole movie feels very much like a children's book come to life, down to the chapter headings that precede each new stage of the story.) Paula is a perfect villain, easy to hate without being truly terrifying, in exactly the way that an adult would be to a kid whose fate rests in her hands. Along the way, Ricky and Hec encounter all manner of colorful characters, including a trio of suspicious hunters and an intense conspiracy theorist played by Rhys Darbys.

But while the plot occasionally veers in strange directions, the emotions of the film remain firmly planted in tragic reality. Ricky and Hec couldn't be more different, but they're bound by the fact that society has no use for either of them. To the rest of the world, they're not people so much as problems to be solved. Ricky is the more obviously damaged of the two — his habit of forming haiku poems about his life is clearly a holdover from an aborted stint in therapy, and he refers to a dead celebrity he's never even met as his "best friend" — but in time, Hec begins to reveal the hurt that he carries with him, too.

Neill is exceptional as Hec, adding a weight to the film that Dennison, as a more lighthearted character, can't. But Dennison is fantastic, too, as wannabe gangster Ricky Baker. Sundance never seems to be short on young breakouts, but Dennison is sure to be one of the year's best finds. While he's cute and likable in the way very young stars often are, he's also great in smaller, subtler moments. When he silently reacts to, for example, a hot water bottle, the look on his face speaks volumes.

Wilderpeople feels like a throwback to '80s adventure films in some ways, but it mostly just feels like a new childhood classic. It has all the makings of one: it's got wonder and adventure and loads of humor, and ultimately winds up on the side of optimism — but it also has moments of genuine tragedy and danger. It's not tough to imagine kids falling this movie today and feeling nostalgic about it 10 or 20 years down the line, the way Millennials and Gen Xers today wax rhapsodic about The Goonies. Unlike a lot of those movies, though, it's one the parents won't mind either./Film rating: 8.0 out of 10