Hunt for the Wilderpeople ★½

Taika Waititi thinks very highly of himself; his smugness radiates from every frame of this film, which is essentially a very diluted version of Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom that apes Anderson's aesthetics with not an iota of his real emotional depth, though plenty of the odd cluelessness in his idol's treatment of female characters. Beat for beat, Waititi mimics story points from other movies (the revelation that one character is illiterate is sub-Disney Channel shit) like a deranged robot that has no comprehension of human beings or, certainly, of comedy. I guess this is a "comedy" in some theoretical sense, assuming you find adorkable kids, fat jokes, (a rather alarming number of) child-molestation jokes and Family Guy-like cutaways to be the height of cinematic wit. He also has weird, weird issues with Nazi stuff; appropriating Leonard Cohen's version of the French Resistance anthem "The Partisan" for a montage in the middle of this kid stuff about a wandering orphan and an erstwhile foster parent (Sam Neill, by a longshot the film's best feature and sole saving grace) is, let's be generous, what a polite dinner guest might call an interesting choice. But this speaks to a much deeper sense of Waititi's emotional stuntedness, whereby tragedy that he himself constructs can only be treated with flippant derision: after an abrupt character death, the next scene hinges on the director himself dressed as a minister delivering a totes awk eulogy, which steps just shy of having the grieving protagonist turn to the camera and say "Welp, that happened!" with a big wink. Moments like this always tell us a great deal about a writer or director's confidence; easy emotional points like killing a barely-sketched character off are copout aplenty -- as with a certain grisly but cowardly presented death scene in one of his other films -- but when you lack even enough conviction to let the audience's response breathe for even as much as a moment, all it says is that you trust neither that audience nor your own material.

Thankfully that early scene is the peak of the film's immaturity. The rest has the boy Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) wandering into the woods with the inconsistently characterized Neill and is a bit more innocuous; it's also extremely stupid and unfunny, but no more offensively on either count than the trash kids rented at Blockbuster in the early '90s, which honestly seems like the approximate chronological center of Waititi's field of knowledge since he attempts to land a joke about a Sony Walkman in a film from 2016. There are so many reasons to object to this and Jojo Rabbit in an ideological sense but it's hard to even get around to that stuff when you're forced to contend with how pathetically hacky its script is, or how terrible the director is at staging even the simplest of scenes. I guess it's "cute" if you have a really low bar for that sort of thing; more importantly, it's certainly a movie that desperately wants you to consider it cute, which is the bulk of its own self-justification. Maybe it succeeds. I was genuinely stunned by the number of people I met who were not instinctively, mortally repelled by Jojo, which I just couldn't imagine having a single charitable thought about. And hey, if you're young enough to be really moved by a cynically telegraphed moment in which an orphan boy pulls out a folded photograph of his otherwise unseen mother, it's not my place to yell at you about it, but fuck Waititi for thinking little enough of you to believe you don't deserve better than this.

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