“It was like the ‘Lord of the Rings’!” Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) says at one point during New Zealand writer-director Taika Waititi’s “Hunt for the Wilderpeople,” where he’s hiding out in the woods like Frodo Baggins hiding from the orcs.
That’s a pretty good in-joke about the state of New Zealand cinema, which to much of the world pretty much begins and ends with hobbits. But there’s another strain of movies and television coming out of Kiwi country lately, exemplified by the wry comedy of “Flight of the Conchords.”
Waititi, who directed a couple of episodes of “Conchords” and made the vampire mockumentary “What We Do in the Shadows” with Jemaine Clement of “Conchords,” may be at the forefront of this comic boomlet. His wonderful new film, “Hunt for the Wilderpeople,” mixes that sly and goofy wit with real emotional feeling — and, yes, a little “Lord of the Rings” style adventure to boot.
Dennison plays Ricky, a 13-year-old juvenile delinquent who has been shuffled from foster home to foster home before landing at the farmhouse of Bella (Rima Te Wiata) out in the boonies. For Ricky,a portly city kid with a penchant for haiku raps and dollar-sign hoodies, it’s the middle of nowhere, but Bella’s patient, unwavering affection for this lonely kid slowly wins him over. Less patient and affectionate is Bella’s husband, the mountain man Uncle Hec (Sam Neill), whose reaction to Ricky vacillates from irritation to bafflement.
Together, Ricky and Hec are like two rescue dogs brought home by the warm-hearted Bella. But when tragedy strikes, a vindictive child services officer (Rachel House) demands that Ricky get taken away and put back in the foster care system. To keep their new family together, Ricky and Hec head off deep in the bush to hide, kept alive by Hec’s survival skills and Ricky’s — well it’s hard to say what Ricky brings to life in the wild, aside from his pop-‘n’-locking ability.
Ricky and Hec become unlikely folk heroes, with SWAT teams, helicopters, even tanks brought into the chase to find them. What starts off as an offbeat family comedy explodes into a gonzo action movie, with fistfights, gunshots, even a climactic car chase that seems like Waititi’s audition tape for the next “Mad Max” movie.
But even as “Wilderpeople” gets bigger and crazier, Waititi never loses sight of either the comedy or poignancy of the situation. After all, Ricky is just a kid who wants some attention and love; how much more attention can you get than being hunted by a SWAT team?
The interplay between the rubbery, guileless Ricky and the gruff Hector is a hoot, recalling Carl and Russell from Pixar’s “Up.” Their inevitable bonding as fugitives on the run feels genuine rather than clichéd. Waititi introduces new predicaments and supporting characters along the way to keep us enthralled, such as Rhys Darby of “Conchords” as a wacko mountain man. The shots of the New Zealand landscape (which the illiterate Hec calls “majestical”) are truly stunning.
“Wilderpeople” is one of those rare movies that works for almost any generation, silly and sweet and big-hearted. To quote Hec, it’s a majestical piece of filmmaking.