Charming Hunt for the Wilderpeople is one of the year’s best

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      Starring Sam Neill. Rated PG

      The thoroughly delightful Hunt for the Wilderpeople is the latest from New Zealand’s Taika Waititi, also known as Taika Cohen—in other words, your usual Jewish-Maori writer-director. The fellow who brought us Jemaine Clement in the clumsy-relationship tale Eagle vs Shark and the vampire comedy What We Do in the Shadows specializes in a combination of whimsical naïveté, broad humour, and sophisticated visual design in Wes Anderson’s cheeky vein.

      His approach reaches a crowd-pleasing peak in the tale of overweight Maori pre-teen Ricky Baker (terrific Julian Dennison, in his third feature), shuttled between unfortunate foster homes before landing with an eccentric rural couple, hippyish Bella and cranky Hector, played by Housebound’s Rima Te Wiata and Jurassic Parker Sam Neill, at his craggy best.

      The initially poor fit works out remarkably well—until something bad happens. (The director himself shows up as a wild-eyed preacher who admits that, “Sometimes we feel like sheep trapped in a maze designed by wolves.”) When overzealous social services sets out to retrieve him, represented by Whale Rider’s Rachel House in Rambo mode, Ricky heads into the bush, followed reluctantly by “Uncle Hec”. Everyone decides the boy’s been abducted, and much farcical chasing ensues.

      The filmmaker, who’s helming the next Thor movie, based this on a 1986 book by Barry Crump, a beloved, if sometimes controversial New Zealand writer of comic bush tales. In his later years, Crump was a TV pitch man for Toyota’s off-road trucks, yielding an inside joke when our mismatched lads run into a nutty hermit played by Rhys Darby (Murray on Flight of the Conchords).

      Some jokes are overplayed here, and I’m not sure the budget for the big climax was warranted. But the movie’s intense charm, killer performances, and offbeat music—from Nina Simone to ’70s soft rock—make it a must-see for 2016.