‘Hunt for the Wilderpeople’
Taika Waititi
Stars: Julian Dennison, Sam Neill
Rating: PG-13
3 (out of 5) Globes

It’s hard not to go for a movie where Sam Neill is introduced wild boar-first. In “Hunt for the Wilderpeople,” the legendary and perennially undervalued actor plays Hec, a New Zealand bushman so gruff and antisocial that he can’t even read. Introduced carrying his latest meal on his back, Hec — basically a version of “Parks and Rec”’s Ron Swanson who was more than talk and never got near a desk job — winds up forced to care for Ricky (Julian Dennison), a troubled Maori orphan whose playfully destructive antics have enraged untold foster parents. When tragedy strikes, Hec lights out for the woods, and is nonplussed when his bright new charge follows, himself trailed by alarmed authorities and a trio of hunter bros out for the rescue reward.

A precocious moppet bonding with a grouchy Sam Neill — this was a subplot in “Jurassic Park,” too. But where in Spielberg’s film the budding friendship between adult and kid was a mere distraction from hot dino action, here it’s one of “Wilderpeople”’s many charming perks. It’s not that Hec won’t learn to chill and Ricky won’t find in him a surrogate father. It’s not even that writer-director Taika Waititi — an actor and filmmaker known for the homegrown smash “Boy” and the vampiric mock-doc “What We Do in the Shadows” — is able to be both prickly and heart-warming but never maudlin, all while making it look easy.

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What makes “Wilderpeople” special, really, is how OK it is with its two heroes living in a self-contained and often dangerous bubble, hoping to get away from the things of man. As directed by Waititi, it’s a rollicking, joke-filled, brightly-colored boys’ adventure where both boy and adult get to be boys. Indeed, Hec’s faux-parenting skills would alarm most parents and concerned citizens. In no mood to tame Ricky, he prefers to school him on how to shoot a rifle, how to gut animals with a knife and how to evade the law. Our pint-sized hero also learns not only the value of unlikely friendships, but that he’s most comfortable as an outlaw defying society rather than joining it.

These aren’t the usual lessons of kids’ films, such as “Wilderpeople” can even be classified as a mere “kids’ film.” It isn’t afraid to throw safety and common sense and sometimes even good taste (there’s a running gag about pedophilia) to the wind and indulge in some fine, reckless bad behavior. It’s a juvenile film in a way that’s very freeing, allowing viewers 102 minutes to forget niceties and enjoy characters who break the rules, get dirty and even make numerous references to movies both obvious (“First Blood”) and very tangential (“The Terminator,” “McCabe & Mrs. Miller”) in way that’s actually funny, not grating. Waititi’s next gig is helming the third “Thor,” and he may finally be the one to broke through corporate code and deliver a Marvel entry with actual, very lively personality.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge