If you like your comedy to have a visual kick, feast your eyes on this family film from director Taika Waititi (What We Do in the Shadows, Eagle vs. Shark). It’s not only that the movie captures ethereally gorgeous New Zealand landscapes, but that the laughs themselves often come from the way Waititi positions his actors in the frame or moves the camera at just the right moment. This looks as funny as it sounds.
Adapted from the book by Barry Crump, Hunt for the Wilderpeople centers on Ricky, a teen ward of the state who is dumped by the authorities on a farm at the edge of the New Zealand bush. There he finds a loving if uncouth mother figure (Rima Te Wiata) who has agreed to be his foster parent, as well as her less agreeable husband Hec (Sam Neill). For reasons I’ll let you discover, Ricky and Hec find themselves on the run in the bush, uneasily learning to work together while child-welfare workers, inept hunters, and others are on their trail.
Before returning to the topic of Waititi’s camera, I should first note what a gifted comedian he has in Julian Dennison as Ricky. His face—one of the roundest I’ve ever seen—is capable of both the scrunchy skepticism of teenagerdom and the open enthusiasm of childhood, and Dennison knows just how to emphasize one or the other. His verbal timing is impeccable as well, and nicely matched by Neill as the incredulous straight man.
If the story is a bit conventional and the emotional beats obviously hit, what ultimately registers is the film’s offbeat sense of humor, which percolates throughout. Characters, most often Ricky, are placed in the center of the frame to highlight the absurdity of their surroundings—I think of Ricky sitting, uncomfortably, at Hec’s dinner table, or trudging up a mountainside, like a small boulder attempting to roll uphill. Another clever technique Waititi employs a few times is a 360-degree shot in which figures, wandering in the wilderness, at first appear in one spot and then show up in another by the time the camera makes its complete circle. Time and space are nicely compressed for a gentle comic effect, something an average comedy would never bother to do.