The Daily Stream: Hunt For The Wilderpeople Bridges Taika Waititi's Past And Present

(Welcome to The Daily Stream, an ongoing series in which the /Film team shares what they've been watching, why it's worth checking out, and where you can stream it.)

The Movie: "Hunt for the Wilderpeople"

Where You Can Stream It: Netflix

The Pitch: Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) is a kid with a nose for trouble in director Taika Waititi's off-kilter comedy-adventure film. After years of being passed from one foster family to another, Ricky is taken to live with Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and her standoffish husband Hector (Sam Neill) at their remote farm. Despite her initial insensitivity about Ricky's weight, Bella wins the boy over with her unconditional support, and the pair begin to grow closer. One thing leads to another, however, and before they know it, Ricky and his not-so-loving foster uncle wind up in the middle of a national manhunt, spurring them to flee into the New Zealand bush.

Waititi was already set to direct "Thor: Ragnarok" by the time "Hunt for the Wilderpeople" debuted to critical raves at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival. This was also two years after the actor-filmmaker had gotten his first real taste of global success with the horror-comedy mockumentary "What We Do in the Shadows," having previously made a name for himself in New Zealand with 2010's "Boy" (the island country's highest-grossing film ever at the time of its release). Yet, if you want to understand how Waititi made the seamless transition from Kiwi auteur to helmer of quirky big-budget Hollywood fare, you need look no further than the terrific movie he directed in-between "Shadows" and "Ragnarok."

Why it's essential viewing

"Hunt for the Wilderpeople" is the work of a director clearly itching to paint on a larger canvas, but never at the expense of the film he's making. The movie's opening — a 45-second aerial tracking shot of the New Zealand bush set to "Makutekahu" — is a breath-taking vista that establishes its setting as a wild, untamed wonder, much like its off-beat protagonists. It goes on to follow Ricky and Hector on a Dahlian odyssey (as in Roald Dahl, minus the bad stuff) that Waititi realizes through playful time-condensing camera pans, fanciful montages, and some choice needle-drops, culminating in a third act showdown that recalls the exhilarating climax of "Thelma & Louise" (but with a much funnier bent).

The film's sense of craft is matched by the emotional highs and lows of its story, written for the screen by Waititi and based on the novel "Wild Pork and Watercress." As much as "Hunt for the Wilderpeople" shares in common with "Up" on the surface (a fabled, colorful bird even appears at one point), it's willing to tackle pricklier issues than Pixar's animated classic does. More than this, the movie refuses to sand down its heroes' rougher edges so as to make their negative traits more adorable than off-putting, in the way the Disney-fied version of this tale probably would.

Indeed, "Hunt for the Wilderpeople" shows a great deal of empathy for its characters, down to the more outrageous ones like a literal "bush-man" who calls himself "Psycho Sam" (Waititi's longtime collaborator and onscreen boyfriend, Rhys Darby). We all know Neill can play a grizzled fellow with a distaste for kids thanks to "Jurassic Park," yet he affords Hector a rich humanity that makes you believe there really is a heart of gold beneath the character's hardened exterior. Dennison's charming turn as the rap-loving, haiku-spouting, and deeply-wounded Ricky is similarly a reminder that he's deserving of the many tentpole roles he's landed since this film came out.

Then there's Waititi's virtuoso handling of tone, which allows him to include a jaw-dropping, dark running joke where Hector is mistaken for being a child molester amidst moments of genuine heartbreak and tension. Add it all up, and "Hunt for the Wilderpeople" stands as one of his finest works in a career spent blending zany comedy with authentic pathos to great effect, even on the blockbuster stage.