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"When they ask who did this tell them it was the Wilderpeople"

A nationwide manhunt is ordered after Ricky Baker, a rebellious city kid (Julian Dennison), and his gruff foster uncle Hec (Sam Neill) disappear in the New Zealand bush in order to stop the pair from being separated by child services.

“The Hunt for the Wilderpeople” is an almost perfect children’s movie that harkens back to the classic style of the genre that hasn’t existed since the late 80s and early 90s. The film is funny, sweet, sad, scary, violent and fun, everything that makes going to the movies as a kid fun and exciting and director Taika Waititi blends all of these emotion peaks and valley flawlessly.

Reminiscent of darker, more realistic kid’s films like “The Neverending Story”, “Labyrinth” or even “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” (I meant realistic in terms of tone, not narrative), the film never shies away from its more emotional moments, letting the characters (and the audience) take pause to deal with real issues like death, injury and emotional pain. It’s the comedic elements however that drive the narrative, hooking us with playful banter, funny situations and likeable characters that make these more serious moments all the more impactful.

Julian Dennison is a sweet kid whose innocence and wide-eyed nature helps imbue Ricky with a grounded reality while still managing to create a character that is silly and fun, making for a wonderful contrast against his gruff and acerbic “uncle”. Sam Neill hasn’t been given a character like this in quite a while and seems to relish the opportunity, making Hec a character that, while he's not always the most pleasant person, you can’t help but fall in love with him and as Ricky slowly begins to form a bond with him so do we as an audience.

After establishing himself as a director with a clear and unique visual style, Waititi is somewhat subdued in this film as he shifts his focus more on the characters and their narrative rather than using his visuals to help create a mood and tone. This isn’t a bad thing as the film is clearly meant for a younger audience and as such it’s key that visual nuance take a backseat to character and story for the sake of the audiences enjoyment. That being said this is still very clearly a Waititi film as he incorporates some of the inventive camerawork and editing that makes his films unique. However he does this sparingly and in a way that helps propel the story rather than hinder it (a balance that Wes Anderson didn’t manage to strike when he tackled similar subject matter in his 2012 film “Moonrise Kingdom”).

The film moves at a quick pace, never forgetting that at its heart it’s a chase film, the threat of capture always on our characters minds. It's because of this narrative drive that the jokes come quick and fast, seldom giving the audience a chance to catch their breath (much like the characters) as it races on to the next chapter, keeping you entertained to the very last minute.

“Hunt for the Wilderpeople” is a welcome return to the traditional kid’s film, one that doesn’t shy away from emotion or reality in favour of a cheap laugh or easy story. It’s a film that cares about it’s characters and wants the audience to as well. Waititi and his cast and crew have crafted a beautiful film that is hysterically funny and wonderfully poignant and destined to become a classic to be enjoyed by younger generations for years to come.

8.5 out of 10.

Reviewed by Chris Swan.