“Hunt for the Wilderpeople” follows a precocious kid as he progressively warms the ice-cold heart of a grizzled curmudgeon, a timeworn formulaic concept that has provided grist for the mill of a lot of movies over the years.
Yet the kid is in fact an orphaned Maori 13-year-old (Julian Dennison) and the elderly gent is the teen’s foster uncle, an illiterate farmer played by Sam Neill.
The movie from writer-director Taika Waititi (“What We Do in the Shadows”) follows the tandem as they flee a massive manhunt, with the older man suspected of kidnapping the teen after they both abandon home following a tragedy, over the course of many months in the bush.
It carves out enough original territory, both in terms of the characterizations, the epic setting and the painstakingly offbeat sensibility that has become Waititi’s specialty, to more than compensate for whatever familiarity lies at the center of the story.
Dennison’s Ricky and Neill’s Hec make for a great comic team, bickering in charming fashion. Hec’s annoyance with the pesky teen gradually transforms into admiration for his inner strength, while Ricky grows to love and care for his bitter, helpless counterpart.
The actors portray these layered emotions with an emotional maturity that sustains the movie even when the plot starts to strain credibility and the attempts at media satire in depicting the sensation over the search for Ricky and Hec mostly fall flat.
This is the most commercial film Waititi has made (at least until his next effort, the third “Thor” movie), but it retains the idiosyncrasies that have characterized his work with Jemaine Clement and other luminaries of the New Zealand comedy scene.
The filmmaker embeds himself in the teenager’s head, illustrating fantasies such as when a hungry Ricky hallucinates that Hec has transformed into a giant, talking hamburger.
It’s an approach that extends to other characters as well: the chief antagonist, a child services worker named Paula, is badly beset with delusions of military grandeur in her pursuit.
There’s enough here to keep the movie embedded well left of center. It’s filled, really, with incongruous parts; the picture has an unexpectedly vast visual scope, with swirling shots and rising camera movements capturing the vast green landscape and recalling “Lord of the Rings.” Plus, there’s some pretty graphic violence, especially in a battle with a wild boar.
Waititi and his wonderful actors stress the friendship at the movie’s center and they gain from the refusal to pull punches. Spending months in the New Zealand bush under these circumstances should be a strange and difficult experience, after all.