What exactly makes Taika Waititi’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople so much fun? I loved the film—based on Barry Crump’s novel Wild Pork and Watercress—long before I tried to puzzle out this question.
Perhaps it’s the premise, played out with such a wholehearted spirit of adventure: thirteen-year-old Ricky Baker, a de facto orphan under state supervision (Julian Dennison), and Hector Faulkner, the crotchety old man who’s ended up being responsible for him (Sam Neill), survive together for months in the New Zealand bush, on the run from authorities who want to relocate Ricky and believe Hector guilty of child abuse.
Perhaps it’s the lively dialogue, almost constantly snapping with wit. Perhaps it’s the gloriously rugged setting, the “majestical” New Zealand countryside—recognizably the same landscape where the Lord of the Rings films were shot. (Actually, that’s not the only connection, but . . . well, to say more would spoil a great moment.)
Perhaps it’s Ricky himself, full of quirky remarks, prone to mischief, but with a more sensitive side belying his tough, rebellious exterior—a sort of kindred spirit to the titular heroine of Lilo and Stitch. It may also be his developing relationship with his “Uncle” Hector, who initially wants nothing to do either with outlaw life or with Ricky, but finds an unexpected grace in the latter . . . and even the former.
That introduces another, especially interesting angle on what makes the film so much fun. This story is not the first to suggest that being an outlaw, at least in a qualified way, can prove a blessing. Many of the medieval outlaw tales, including some of the earlier Robin Hood legends, have a similar lighthearted, rambling style, reveling in their escapades with zest and, sometimes, without much clear purpose.
This might be called purposeful fun, or perhaps, strange as it might sound, a “philosophy of fun.” There need not be anything explicitly philosophical about the stories themselves. Simply by being what they are, they indicate that an excursion out of the normal rules and systems can provide a refreshing, renewing experience. It can offer people a chance to experience some good they would not have otherwise, and may leave them inspired to correct aspects of ordinary life that have become faulty.
Perhaps this concept of liberating humor made more sense in the context of the Middle Ages, since it appeared not only in literature and art but in social life. One scholar, Mikhail Bakhtin, goes on at some length about the importance of the carnival to medieval life, explaining that it was much more than a time for fun. It was “the people’s second life, organized on the basis of laughter” and an expression of “universal renewal.” For the special time of merrymaking, many usual customs were suspended, allowing people to taste new experiences and perhaps consider whether the usual ones should be altered (e.g. the temporary removal of social divisions might make long-term relationships between classes kinder and more human).
Naturally, in an outlaw story, whether a medieval Robin Hood legend or a 2016 movie, the departure from the norm is not universally agreed on or planned, as it is in the carnival. Still, this genre of humorous story can be called “carnivalesque” in that it’s based on the same idea of suspension of rules having a cleansing, restorative effect—and, like the carnival, it takes lightly, in a spirit of laughter, whatever can legitimately be taken in this spirit.
So how is the flight of the “Wilderpeople” an exercise in liberation? On the most basic level, it’s liberation for Ricky from caretakers whom he fears and distrusts. Because he has a record of trouble and no one wants him, he predicts that if he ever goes back, he’ll simply be sent to juvenile detention, or worse. “They don’t care about kids like me,” he maintains. “They just keep moving us around, until something happens, like with Amber”—referring to another young ward of the state, who died under unclear circumstances.
But it’s also his liberation from the harshness and loneliness that have thus far dominated his life. Although he resents Hector’s initial hostility, Ricky wants a family—even of one other person—enough to cling to his “uncle” even as they bicker. As their relationship evolves and they start to bond, the boy’s defensive shell of anger and something like sullenness gives way to contentment. Not only is he escaping his captors—something he’s apparently done in many runaway attempts before—but he’s doing it with his “mate” (something like “buddy” in New Zealand speak).
The months of adventure prove a liberation for Hector, too. Historically something of a loser and social outcast, he’s now lost the fragile framework that’s just barely enabled him to fit in the established social world. Left to his own devices, he would likely have closed himself up in his own bitterness. Ricky’s antics turn the old man’s life upside down, but ultimately in a salvific way, by forcing him to keep living in the present, motivating him with new challenges, and offering him a new human relationship—much as happens with Carl Frederickson and Russell in Up. Although he has more practical reservations about their situation than Ricky, Hector gradually realizes that their months in the wild have given him joy, admitting in retrospect that “it was the best.”
Apparently society is not prepared to meet the needs of these two; but, miraculously, their life in the bush does better for them. Like the carnival, the wilderness is a great equalizer and a place to start afresh, where the two protagonists can put aside what they have been and what they are to the world and be, in Bakhtin’s words, “reborn for new, purely human relationships.”
This idea of their flight as liberating seems affirmed in the attitudes of people following the news, including a TV reporter, who hail the pair as champions of freedom. “Keep doing what you’re doing!” gushes a man whom Ricky encounters. There may be a suggestion here that modernity in general is weighed down with too much complication and cramps human life too much, especially when a supporting character equates life in civilization with being a “form-filler.” (“Then you have to fill out another form to confirm it was you that filled out the first form . . . and if you ever want to stop filling out forms, well, there’s about five different forms for that!”)
In this context, the mere idea that a man and a boy can run off into the bush and live there, a small, simple, independent society of their own, is thrilling for some—probably among the audience as well as spectating characters. I, for one, am inclined to hope so.
Of course, putting rules aside has the potential to go too far and become destructive. Certainly that’s how the authorities, led by an entertainingly aggressive child welfare agent (Rachel House), see their targets’ conduct. But though they may take things for survival purposes, they never actually harm anyone. In fact, at one point they go significantly out of their way to save a man’s life. This is another important principle of the “carnivalesque” story: it’s all fun and games only within certain limits, certain things that are not to be taken lightly or flouted, lest “renewal” turn into chaos.
On a related note, the fun factor isn’t achieved by any cheapness or papering over of problems. Both protagonists have had rather bleak lives, and the film can turn on a dime and be genuinely poignant with its emotional honesty, from Ricky’s mixed feelings about the mother who bore him (“she got rid of me when I was a baby”) to Hector’s mostly silent burden of sorrow. Pains and fears afflict both past and present, and are not to be dismissed or ignored.
Yet, without diminishing these, Hunt for the Wilderpeople persists in its overall lively cheerfulness. It’s too optimistic, too much in love with life and freedom, to yield to discouragement. Even after some terrible moment, it always manages to crack a joke within just the right amount of time, lest we be in any danger of thinking all is lost. I was reminded of Chesterton’s remark in New Witness: “If there are ghastly things to be faced, the only thing we can do is make it glorious to face them.”
Not that the film necessarily affirms Ricky’s aspiration to “die in a blaze of glory.” Glory may not always be found where a thirteen-year-old might hope to find it. Adventure does, alas, run into practical limits and stumbling blocks, from the harshness of the wild to the resources of the police.
These, however, don’t come off as negating the adventure, but are taken up matter-of-factly into the overall spirit of spunk and good humor. There is glory even in imperfect, sometimes muddled or hampered adventures, both of life generally and of the Wilderpeople. Living and striving and loving is glorious. Furthermore, while life in the bush may or may not be a practical long-term plan, the upshot of their escapades suggests—again, very much in keeping with Chesterton—that sometimes things have to be turned upside down for a time in order to be set right.
Thus fun and fulfillment come together, with a well-balanced blend of youthful exuberance and quiet, unobtrusive wisdom. The remarkable achievement of Hunt for the Wilderpeople is that it offers both a romp as delightful as any in recent years and a beauty and thoughtfulness almost like the haiku that appear throughout it. How often does one find that?