The runaway local success of

Boy

sure made it a hard act to follow. Could a local film ever hope to find as big an audience again? Could its creator, Taika Waititi, ever hope to tap a nation's funnybone with such precision in another film? Could he ever find another kid to do what the young James Rolleston did in that movie?

Well, on the evidence of The Hunt for the Wilderpeople it seems Waititi has had a bloody good go at making a film that could answer all of the above in the affirmative.

A scene from the movie, The Hunt for the Wilderpeople, directed by Taika Waititi.
A scene from the movie, The Hunt for the Wilderpeople, directed by Taika Waititi.

His fourth feature - coming after the splattery vampire spoof

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, co-directed with Jemaine Clement - is everything you hope it might be, given its source material (Barry Crump's

Wild Pork and Watercress

), Waititi's gently askew sensibilities and his ability to get kids to tell grown-up stories with utterly natural performances.

The remarkable performance of young Julian Dennison as Ricky Baker, the city juvenile delinquent fostered out in the backblocks, gives Wilderpeople most of its many laughs. But he's not just there doing cute stuff and being precocious. Dennison manages to make him a sad, angry orphan too. He's a kid who may turn-up dressed like a hip-hop cartoon character but he feels nicely genuine, even when the film starts doing Looney Toons things towards the end of its adventure.

The adults aren't bad either. Rima Te Wiata shines (as she did in Housebound) as Ricky's foster aunt, Bella, who takes young Ricky into the remote house she shares with her taciturn farmer-bushman partner, Hec (Sam Neill).

Likewise, Rachel House as Ricky's ruthless and overbearing case officer is a hoot, especially when partnered with Oscar Kightley's slightly dim local cop.

By comparison, Rhys Darby's turn as a crazy hermit is a bit daft, though he does arrive late in the film at a time the story feels like it's starting to flag.

Rhys Darby plays a crazy hermit in the film.
Rhys Darby plays a crazy hermit in the film.

Fortunately the lead performances remain engaging all the way to the end. Any prior thoughts that Sam Neill might be too polished a presence to play a Crump-ish backwoods character are soon put aside, Gruff, grey and permanently Swanndri-ed, Neill is terrific as Hec and, as he told

TimeOut

last week, it's his character's job to give the film its emotional bottom end, something he pulls off with ease. He's one convincing pig-sticker, too.

Predictably, as he and Ricky are forced to go bush together in an attempt stop the kid being taken away to juvenile detention, Hec's attitude softens towards his young companion. But though the pair's relationship progress might adhere to formula, they're still one of the more unique big-screen double acts to front a local film.

It's intriguing too that Neill, the man who who coined the term "cinema of unease", starts off the movie as if he's wandered in from Vincent Ward's Vigil into a laugh-out-loud movie that makes plenty of references to the crowd-pleasing Kiwi movies of the late 70s and 80s - like Sleeping Dogs (in which Neill got chased around the bush, as he is here) and Goodbye Pork Pie. And there's a wry Lord of the Rings gag, too.

Oscar Kightley (left, with Rachel House) is a convincing dim local cop.
Oscar Kightley (left, with Rachel House) is a convincing dim local cop.

It's also got a scattering of pop culture references like Crump's Toyota ads and a classic confectionery commercial, all of which are pretty amusing to those old enough to remember them.

The Phoenix Foundation offer an aptly retro-electro soundtrack, though the film's music also stretches to a hilariously overwrought classical piece up front and the much-used Nina Simone's classic, Sinner Man, later on.

It seems the affection Boy had for Michael Jackson has transferred to the late, great rapper Tupac Shakur in this. Not only does Ricky sport an All Eyez on Me hoodie and call his dog 2Pac, you wonder if some of that grand chase scene is as much homage to Shakur's California Love video as it is to those various Kiwi movies.

Though Wilderpeople does wind up somewhere that sure looks like Smash Palace, so maybe not.

So is Wilderpeople as good as Boy?

Maybe not quite. It's far more of a romp, the serio-comic tone Waititi establishes in the film's early chapters - complete with chapter headings - gets left behind in the dust of that big action finale.

But could it be as big as Boy? Most definitely. Get ready, New Zealand, to wrap your laughing gear around this.


Movie: The Hunt for the Wilderpeople
Cast: Sam Neill, Julian Dennison, Rima Te Wiata, Rachel House, Rhys Darby, Oscar Kightley
Director: Taika Waititi
Rating: PG (Violence, coarse language, some scenes may disturb young children)
Running time: 101 mins
Verdict: Taika strikes gold again in his second kiddie-powered feature