Add this to your list of movies to see this month. Actually, make it first on the lineup.
“Hunt for the Wilderpeople” is the kind of adorable, coming-of-age dramedy that Pixar would proudly create if it made live-action movies and not cartoons. It’s a well-told adventure spoof with a delinquent kid played by newcomer Julian Dennison and a gruff codger played by veteran Sam Neill, on the run from the cops.
It’s crammed with remarkable jokes and great performances, heart-twanging moments of pathos, awesome cinematography and an overall sense of rambunctious creative joy. This is the kind of independently produced delight that studios have entirely abandoned, touching sweetness without saccharine schmaltz.
Dennison’s Ricky is a preteen headache for the child welfare services and the foster families where bureaucrats assign him. He’s in trouble for “breaking stuff, stealing stuff, hitting stuff, kicking stuff and setting stuff on fire.”
Never nasty but usually naughty, he’s a troublemaker largely because he’s troubled himself, a chubby baby pretending to be a gangsta.
As an 11th-hour effort to keep him out of juvenile prison, the authorities give him a last-ditch placement with two backwoods guardians. Warm Aunt Bella (Rima Te Wiata) loves him like a new pet in their shabby cabin; her dismissive husband, Uncle Hec (Neill), regards Ricky as if he’s not housebroken.
The creator of this charmer is Taiki Waititi, a half-Maori New Zealander who is not yet much recognized elsewhere. If you weren’t lucky enough to see his offbeat writing-directing work in 2014’s hilarious vampire mockumentary “What We Do in the Shadows” or HBO’s comedy series “Flight of the Conchords” about the Kiwis’ fourth most popular folk duo, you might have missed him.
That won’t last.
He’s directing Marvel’s third Thor movie, “Ragnarok,” and scripted Disney’s upcoming animated feature “Moana,” which are about the most convincing seals of mainstream approval a moviemaker can receive. An excellent actor himself, he visits the story as a remarkably awkward pastor turning a funeral service into a nitwit farce.
None of the story’s excellent twists and surprises will be spoiled here. Just know that Hec and Ricky go AWOL together in the vast forest, and the boy’s social worker, Paula (Rachel House), assumes it is a molester’s child abduction requiring a national manhunt. Paula, a cocky idiot who acts like a hotshot and gets everything wrong, is wrong again. The pair’s push-pull relationship leads to some scares, but largely draws them wonderfully close together, even as they deal with some uproariously funny perversion jokes.
Digging herself ever deeper into absurdity, Paula launches a pursuit with battalions of police that descends into classic 1970s chase-movie car-flipping. That’s one of several sly pop-culture nods in a film full of amazements. Waititi creates a panoramic 720-degree camera turn across a large collection of characters outdoors to advance the story by weeks without dull old-school exposition.
“Jurassic Park’s” Neill, a dramatic major leaguer, offers a master class on how to be sidesplitting on-screen without cracking a single smile.
You may have seen unlikely interracial and cross-generational buddy comedies before, but nothing as hip and engaging as this goofy comedy of errors. It is entirely good in every way a family movie can be.