Rabbits, Boys and the Wilderness

Must-see movies directed by the talented and quirky Taika Waititi

Gage Skidmore, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Being a very proud New Zealander, I’m always keen to support homegrown productions. We have a pretty good reputation for a small country somewhat isolated at the bottom of the world. Everyone knows we are Middle Earth, thanks to the masterful director Peter Jackson putting Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy onto the big screen. Although this was a top box-office movie compilation that snapped up many awards, there are many other older New Zealand productions worthy of note; Goodbye Pork Pie (1980), Once were Warriors (1994), Whale Rider (2002) and The World’s Fastest Indian (2005) are just a handful of my all-time favourites and totally worth checking out.

However, there is another director whose movies are simply glorious. Taika Waititi is a name to watch out for if you haven’t already had the pleasure of seeing some of his work. At last year’s Academy Awards, his movie Jojo Rabbit was nominated for best picture and won the Oscar for best-adapted screenplay. Just recently, it won a Grammy for the best compilation soundtrack for visual media. It is possibly the most brilliant film I have ever seen, charged with fact, fiction, and his signature humour and presence.

If you liked Jojo Rabbit then you absolutely must stake out two earlier movies of his; Boy (2010) and The Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2015). These two films are emotionally brutal yet delightful, and so quintessential of New Zealand. Like Jojo Rabbit, Waititi cleverly encapsulates drama, action, comedy, fantasy and horror into both. Without ruining either movie for when you do watch, here are five reasons why they should be on your viewing list.

1. They quickly commandeer interest

Boy has an outstanding prologue that checks my required ‘five minutes to capture me’ box. The background to set the scene for the storyline is cleverly executed with narration, graphics, humour and music. It includes snapshots that take me back to my youth and establishes the importance of characters moving forward — from a pet goat to an absent but revered father.

Wide-angled footage of a dense, extensive bush draws us into the remote scene where the Hunt of the Wilderpeople story takes place. A police car meanders along empty roads to an isolated, dilapidated house and a young, chubby-looking lad reluctantly steps out. Ricky is accompanied by Paula from the Department of Child Welfare and policeman Andy. You have to laugh at their combined aloofness while Paula delivers a matter-of-fact, no-nonsense explanation why Ricky is being handed over to Bella, his new foster Aunty. Paula describes Ricky’s deviant behaviours in a monotonically but funny manner and her personal motto ‘no child left behind’ sets the tone for the satirical wit infused throughout the movie.

2. Waititi’s flair as a writer and actor

Like Jojo Rabbit’s transformation from Christine Leunens’ Caging Skies to a feature film, the Hunt for the Wilderpeople is also based on a book. Waititi cleverly adapts famous outdoorsy New Zealand author Barry Crump’s book Wild Pork and Watercress onto the big screen, renaming it in the process. He breaks the film up into chapters, reminding the audience of its origins. He shrewdly includes references to Crump’s famous television appearances in advertisements for Toyota Hilux back in the eighties, although you have to be a Kiwi to make the connection. Boy is an original script written by Waititi, like his more recent and fabulous vampire “mockumentary” What Happens in the Shadows, co-written with Jermaine Clement.

As in Jojo Rabbit, and indeed all of his productions, Waititi takes on a role in both of the movies. In Boy, he plays Alamein, the wayward Dad who abandoned his kids for his nefarious lifestyle, but suddenly reappears. The story revolves around his beer-drinking, pot-smoking habits and his obvious deviant behaviour and inept parenting skills. Waititi nails the stereotypical kiwi-bloke-come-gangster persona, and it will make you cringe.

His appearance in the Hunt for the Wilderpeople as the Minister may be brief but is typically hilarious as he delivers one of the most gorgeous sermons that will have you in tears with laughter.

The pace of both movies is beautifully interwoven to hold interest. Like Jojo Rabbit, there are moments of tranquillity that quickly turn into nail-biting horror scenes. There’s action and plenty of drama — cops and robbers style even. Fantasy is dished out in flashbacks, delusions and graphics. There’s a dollop of romance and a handful of sad moments that will tug at your heartstrings — or make you fume with anger.

3. Great cast and characters

I can’t help but think the actors in all of Waititi’s movies must have an absolute blast performing their scenes and working with him. The casting of roles is nothing short of perfection. If you loved the talented Aussie actress Rebel Wilson, who played the priceless Frāulein Rahm in Jojo Rabbit, then you will get a giggle out of Rhys Darby’s role of Psycho Sam in the Hunt for the Wilderpeople.

The seasoned Sam Neill plays Uncle Hec in the Hunt for the Wilderpeople. He makes his first appearance carrying a dead pig on his back creating an immediate impression he knows how to survive in the middle of nowhere. His chequered past creeps into the storyline as his relationship with Ricky unfolds.

The delightful Rachel House appears in both movies; she plays Boy’s Aunty Gracie and has that same ‘don’t mess with me’ approach behind the counter in the local store as she does playing Paula, in the Hunt for the Wilderpeople.

Two incredibly talented young lads take on the lead roles of each movie. Julian Denniston plays Ricky Baker in the Hunt for the Wilderpeople. His delightful pre-pubescent behaviour coupled with his innocent rants and quirky Haiku will titivate all of your emotions. Likewise, Boy, (James Rolleston), is equally admirable as he portrays a teen discovering some home truths that burst his fantastical bubble.

4. You get a taste of New Zealand

If you have never had the chance to get ‘down under,’ then you may be just a little more inclined to put a trip on your bucket list. What you see in these two movies is real. Boy is set in Waihau Bay on the picturesque coastline of the Bay of Plenty, while Hunt for the Wilderpeople is set in the remote Waitakere ranges and 40 000 acres of dense, hilly forest and bush. There are 35 hiking tracks through this area, and some of the huts for trampers are used for scenes in the film, so if you want to experience the wilderness for yourself, you can.

You may be shocked at the state of the houses in both movies; well-worn, inside and out, with dowdy decor, plain furnishings and a distinct lack of modern technology. Those were the days! Their simple existences poke at wealth and materialism and their irrelevance when it comes to raising a child. This is just one of the themes trickling through both movies.

What strikes me the most is the raw New Zealand accent, and to be honest, I wince when I hear it. Do we really sound like that?! Do we honestly deserve “the most alluring and sexiest accent in the world” bestowed by Big 7 Travel in 2019? The script used throughout both Boy and the Hunt for the Wilderpeople is typical kiwi-speak; unique phrases, a lot of cussing, blunt and to the point. From ‘ya bloody bastard’, ‘ya mongrel’ and ‘shit just got real’ we have professed the art of saying it like it is.

To top off the New Zealand culture display is the music. There’s a bunch of good ol’ kiwi artists and tunes interspersed through both movies such as DD Smash, Prince Tui Teka and Herbs. Poi E and Hine E Hine are traditional Maori classics, and there is a delightful original, the Ricky Baker Birthday Song. Waititi and his team are clearly gifted in matching music to moments.

5. The poignant themes

Both Boy and the Hunt for the Wilderpeople have a plethora of underlying innuendos in them, with the primary one being survival; enduring tragic loss and betrayal, coping with constant change and upheaval and having to be an adult when you are still a child. Waititi ingeniously broaches subjects from the importance of pets to the absence of positive parental role models to emphasize a child’s fundamental needs: love, belonging, safety and security. He uses familiar, but unsuspecting objects to symbolize this theme and demonstrates eloquently how kids deal with emotional challenges. The fact that he can accomplish this at the same time as making us laugh is a remarkable achievement.

In summary, these movies have a little bit of everything to enrapture an audience. I am thankful Taika Waititi has many years left in him to provoke and transform us from the self-centred, materialistic beings we seem to have become, reminding us of our roots, tapping into our emotions and highlighting our resilience. And, more importantly, making us laugh.

Get comfortable, grab the kleenex and enjoy these enchanting films. You will not be disappointed.

Originally published at https://vocal.media.

Mother. Nurse. Teacher. Crafter. Photographer. And now, writer…

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