The Hunt For The Wilderpeople is one of my all time favourite movies, a sweet, affecting and all round lovely odd couple comedy where a young boy bonds with grumpy old Sam Neill in an all kinds of charming way. The director responsible, Taika Waititi, then went on to make another odd couple comedy in the form of Thor: Ragnarok where the Hulk and Thor bounced off of each other in amusing ways, and now he’s back with a third, and quite possibly the most unusual yet as it involves a young boy called Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) and Adolf Hitler (Waititi himself) at the end of the second world war.
Of course it’s not really Hitler, but young Jojo’s imaginary friend version of him, and so though he’s capable of an extremely angry bit of ranting every so often and his opinion on the Jewish race is all kinds of horrendous, he’s also childish in the extreme, taking part in “Heil” Off’s, hyping up Jojo and being a kind and supportive friend whenever Jojo’s in need of such a thing.
It’s an unusual film and then some, then, but it doesn’t quite work. It’s by no means as bad as you may have heard (with The Guardian film critic Peter Bradshaw ranting about it in an annoying fashion here), but it’s a little on the nose, a little lacking in subtlety, and so when Jojo discovers that his mother (Scarlett Johansson, excellent but underused) is harbouring Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), a young Jewish girl, in a hidden room though he’s at first appalled he slowly falls in love with her in a rather boring way.
Aspects of it are very sweet, from Jojo’s relationship with his mother and his best friend Yorki (Archie Yates), and it’s also very funny at times. The best parts revolve around Jojo’s relationship with the fantasy version of Hitler, but also his initial passion for a Hitler Youth weekend camp where there’ll learn all manner of terrible things is darkly funny (with their excitement at the possibility of burning books bleakly hilarious), and Stephen Merchant is perfectly cast as a fuck off creepy member of the Gestapo who searches Jojo’s house after someone informs upon them.
But other bits are a little bland, after his initial discovery and horror at meeting Elsa the way their relationship changes is a bit by the numbers, and the film starts to drag a lot in these sections, and the way both his mother and Elsa impress upon him the fact that one day he’ll understand what love is lacks anything even close to subtlety. The same applies to a recurring bit where Jojo can’t tie his shoes and is chastised over this, and even someone who had never seen a film before could guess what would happen in the end.
It’s a shame there are these lacklustre moments because at times it’s quite a powerful film, the ending is extremely effective and affecting, and it’s a film packed with superb performances. If the sequences between Jojo and Elsa had been a bit more interesting, and Waititi had credited the audience with a little more intelligence when it came to some of the recurring themes, then it could have been something incredibly special, whereas instead it’s of interest for sure, but something of a missed opportunity