“Find water. Go to high ground. And don’t get naked.”

A Māori boy and a Pākehā man go forth into the New Zealand bush. It sounds like the start to a joke. But while Taika Waititi‘s latest Hunt for the Wilderpeople is hilarious, it’s far from being a trivial lark. There’s some weighty emotion involved as its two loners who never believed they’d truly have anyone in their lives to rely upon gradually bond as family on an impromptu adventure of survival into the unknown. They’re lost boys scooped up by Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and her heart of gold. She married Hec (Sam Neill) and enthusiastically embraces the opportunity to be the person to supply young Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) the security and stability needed to escape a life in juvenile detention. She’s their beacon of hope.

The steadying hand of love and compassion, this sunshiny fable of optimistic destiny is inevitably blown up upon her sudden passing. What are Hec and Ricky to do? The former wasn’t very keen on having the boy around to begin with and the latter’s thaw was a direct result of Bella’s no-nonsense yet soft touch. Leaving the pair to fend for themselves is hardly ideal and child services agent Paula (Rachel House) knows as much. But what’s the alternative? Ricky is at the end of the line; there are no more foster homes on the list willing to take a chance on someone prone to “stealing, spitting, starting fires, and graffiti.” Hec’s too much of a “man’s man” to feel sympathy so running away is his only option.

Unfortunately for Ricky, he hasn’t the skills or physique to beat the wild alone. Hec understands this and despite the boy’s actions in the aftermath of Bella’s death goes out to find him for Paula and under-appreciated policeman Andy (Oscar Kightley) to stick him back in the system. Too stubborn for their own good, an argument ensues and Hec breaks his foot to render the prospect of returning moot. They set-up camp instead, mending his injury while Ricky learns the ways of the land. Six weeks pass, everyone starts believing something bad has happened (Hec and Bella’s home is slightly scorched by fire after all), and the government begins a manhunt. Misunderstandings quickly spiral the situation out of control until hiding in the trees becomes their only option.

It’s an adventure comedy with an odd couple at its center who somehow aren’t the oddest characters involved. Hardly normal with Hec’s abrasive stoicism and Ricky’s delusions of gangsta grandeur, they nonetheless prove beacons of sanity when compared to those on their tails. House’s Paula, for instance, reveals herself to be a crazed wannabe legal enforcer spewing American rhetoric like “No child left behind” despite already showing herself to be cynical to the bone. She revels in playing the villain, an authoritarian with a chip on her shoulder who’d rather achieve the win on paper than understand the nuance of the situation she faces. Perfectly over-the-top and wonderfully intense, she’s a satirical caricature of the highest order with Andy’s easily distracted lackey by her side.

Also on the side of evil is a trio of bumbling hunters epitomizing the idea of all bluster and no bite in Hugh (Cohen Holloway), Ron (Stan Walker), and Joe (Mike Minogue). It’s as though the bush is a maze shifting to and fro to ensure they cross paths with Hec and Ricky whenever the duo think they’ve gotten away. They talk a big game yet are constantly made into fools by the sexagenarian and thirteen year-old boy they pursue, the dynamic of these meet-ups never ceasing to entertain. Any time Ricky is allowed to embrace his gangsta rap sensibilities (he names his dog Tupac after all) is a win for the audience and if the exchanges let Hec loosen up and enjoy the fight it’s even better.

The friends along the journey are just as eclectic with loquacious Kahu (Tioreore Ngatai-Melbourne), her endearingly excitable dad TK (Troy Kingi), and a conspiracy theorist hermit no one calls Psycho Sam but himself (Rhys Darby) rounding out the cast. They each fuel the celebrity Ricky is unwittingly achieving back in civilization as the cat and mouse chase continues longer and longer into the winter. They cheer on this unlikely underdog pair who’s able to elude the fuzz and evolve as partners in crime with an ever-increasing sense of empathy and good will. Literally outcasts from society earning the most attention they’ve ever experienced in their entire lives, Ricky and Hec are growing to love each other as much as Bella loved them. We’re talking authentic storybook charm.

It’s as though Waititi took Barry Crump‘s book Wild Pork and Watercress and filtered it through the gaze of Wes Anderson quirk. The camera angles and zooms, abrupt shifts in tone, and absolute comedic dryness align perfectly with that American auteur’s sensibilities to make Hunt for the Wilderpeople a must-see for his fans (as long as they don’t mind parsing through thick New Zealand accents). Split into chapters that push the heroes farther out into the bush where exotic birds and monstrous wildebeests roam, Waititi’s film keeps its artifice and emotions in a carefully constructed symbiotic relationship. We know the surface is silly but never forget the poignancy of what’s happening underneath. This is “Good job not dying” becoming synonymous with “I love you” territory and it’s flawless.

This success is mostly due to the wonderful lead performances. Neill’s Hec calls back to his iconic Dr. Alan Grant’s gruff exterior. There’s a kind man in there somewhere, but he’s never had to let it out with anyone but Bella. Happy in the wilderness alone to fend for himself, being responsible for the boy is hardly his idea of fun and yet he learns to appreciate what’s received in return. As for Dennison, Ricky Baker is a star-making role for the boy. He’s pure charisma and comic gold that’s unafraid of doing whatever is necessary for the joke. Prone to dancing and scowling, his ability to shift from eleven to two on the excitement scale when asked embodies the spirit of Waititi’s heartfelt yet brilliantly absurd tone.

Score: 9/10 

Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 101 minutes | Release Date: March 31st, 2016 (New Zealand)
Studio: Piki Films / Madman Entertainment / The Orchard
Director(s): Taika Waititi
Writer(s): Taika Waititi / Barry Crump (book)