Roald Dahl never wrote a chaptered storybook called “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” — in which a rebellious orphan and a rugged hermit bond while hiding in the bush country to evade child protective services — but the movie by that title has the dark humor, imperiled children, and in-spite-of-itself sentimentality that the author of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and “Danny, the Champion of the World” would have appreciated.
It’s actually based on a book called “Wild Pork and Watercress,” by New Zealand comic-adventure novelist Barry Crump, but it’s been freely adapted and directed by Taika Waititi, the “Flight of the Conchords” cohort who made the hilarious “What We Do in the Shadows.” In Waititi’s telling, 13-year-old Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) is a chubby miscreant with crimes on the order of “spitting, running away, throwing rocks, kicking stuff, loitering, and graffiti.” He’s placed in a foster home with loving “auntie” Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and indifferent “uncle” Hec (Sam Neill), a rugged off-the-grid survivalist with vaguely nutty views. When Bella dies, Ricky runs away, pursued by Hec, and the two end up living in the wilderness. Meanwhile, believing irascible Hec to have kidnapped the boy, police and social workers conduct a search.
The gruff old man partnered with the hip-hop-loving, haiku-inventing adolescent makes for good friction-based comedy as they try (and sometimes don’t try) to get along, each needing the other — Hec has broken his foot; Ricky has no idea how to live off the land — while stubbornly insisting he’s independent. There’s joy in their irresponsible behavior and their cavalier attitude toward civilization, and the film captures the feeling you get when you’re a kid and an adult helps you stay out late or sneak a second dessert — the exhilarating sensation of not only having fun, but having fun that you’re not supposed to have.
Waititi’s humor can be brusque, almost mean, and he’s weirdly preoccupied with the cartoonishly villainous social worker (Rachel House) leading the manhunt. But he also gives us Rhys Darby as Psycho Sam, a truly crazy denizen of the wilderness whose daffiness reminds us that this is the same devilish Waititi responsible for “What We Do in the Shadows.” (Neither Psycho Sam nor the haikus are in the book, by the way.) He pulls off a neat trick, too, when the movie ends up being sweet and affecting despite its characters’ disdain for mushy stuff. The wilderpeople? They were in our hearts all along.
B+ (1 hr., 41 min.; )