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posted: 7/7/2016 5:45 AM

'Hunt for the Wilderpeople' a joyously humanistic adventure film

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  • An aging widower (Sam Neill) and his foster son (Julian Dennison) brave the New Zealand bush to escape authorities in "Hunt for the Wilderpeople."

    An aging widower (Sam Neill) and his foster son (Julian Dennison) brave the New Zealand bush to escape authorities in "Hunt for the Wilderpeople."

 
 

Every narrative thread in Taika Waititi's joyously humanistic, sweetly endearing New Zealand adventure leads to one seemingly minor gesture, a simple hug.

But in this glorious, single moment of awkward affection lies the poignant point of "Hunt for the Wilderpeople" -- that we all need families, and that holding onto families, whatever form they take, requires a little effort and sacrifice.

"Bad egg" preteen city kid Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) arrives at the rural home of farmers ditsy Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and curmudgeonly Hec (Sam Neill) to be their foster son. An orphaned juvenile delinquent, Ricky imagines himself to be all gangster.

In a quick montage of his crimes, Ricky knocks things over. Burns a birdhouse. Paints graffiti. Oh, yeah, he's a menace to society for sure.

"Leave me alone," Hec barks at Ricky. So he does.

Until unexpected events throw the two together on an epic adventure through the surrealistic beauty of the New Zealand bush country.

Police, obsessed social service workers, hunters and the military are hot on their trail, believing Hec to be a kidnapper and child abuser on the run. (It doesn't help that poor Ricky fumbles his words so that authorities misconstrue Hec's intentions.)

Riddled with clever, fresh, superbly rendered dialogue (adapted from Barry Crump's 1986 novel "Wild Pork and Watercress"), "Hunt for the Wilderpeople" begins with whimsically unlikely vignettes that soon springboard off into total silliness, even utilizing that overused action movie cliché, the car chase.

The treat of Waititi's movie is observing how the icy layers between Hec and Ricky begin to melt away, and the two are forced to become an odd couple -- New Zealand's Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid -- to survive.

And they do, in a kind and moving story bristling with honest humor and genuine affection for its characters.

Neill has come a long way since bursting onto the Hollywood scene as Satan's offspring in "The Omen III: The Final Conflict."

Now with a full white beard and an ornery delivery bestowed upon him by Father Time, Neill offers us the cresting performance of his film career so far, a calmly considered character whose crusty irascibility synergies nicely with his young co-star's unaffected openness.

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