On Taika Waititi's refreshing honesty
The first Taika Waititi-helmed film I saw is his first; or, his first feature-length, anyway, “Eagle vs. Shark.” I didn’t care for it much. It stars Jemaine Clement opposite Loren Horsley — a couple of misfits in New Zealand who find refuge in one another.
If you’ve seen any of Waititi’s five feature films (I’ve now seen them all), that probably sounds familiar. What’s interesting about the rhyming of the Kiwi’s narratives is that it doesn’t seem to suit him at all. Read any of the myriad profiles that have popped up (this is a good one, but you really should watch this to get a sense for how he carries himself), and you’ll realize Waititi is only a misfit in that he’s much cooler than the rest of us.
People love him, generally speaking, yet he makes remarkable films about the unloved and unlovable. “Eagle vs. Shark” fails, for me, because the lead characters aren't just wholly unlikable, they're unsympathetic, too. He never makes that mistake again. “Boy,” which may be just a touch biographical, casts Waititi as a deadbeat prodigal father opposite an 11-year-old boy who learns his dad isn’t who he thought he was.
In hindsight, Waititi was destined to direct a Marvel film. For starters, the last sentence of the above paragraph is basically “Star Wars." Then, there are the “E.T.” and “Hulk” references dropped throughout the runtime of the 2010 film, showing the colors of a kid raised by the late 70s and early 80s. Waititi never dreamed of becoming a studio guy, but he’s always been one of the nerds.
That’s not why he’s a great director, of course. “Boy” works because there’s no villain, really. His ability to treat characters with respect, no matter the shade of gray, is a hallmark of his talent. It shines through in every film he directs because he’s also a stupendous writer. You won’t find that as much in “Thor: Ragnarok” because he doesn’t receive a writing credit, but that’s where his sense of humor comes into play; and rest assured, that’s present in all five of his films.
It is perhaps no more obvious Waititi is a comedy writer than in “What We Do in the Shadows,” a horror mockumentary about vampires in New Zealand. What I love about this movie, and what makes it specifically a Waititi endeavor, is his ability to make a group of horrifically bad people good guys. Listen, there’s no other way to slice it: Vampires who lure young people into an apartment to eat them are objectively bad [🔥 take], but Waititi [and I suppose I will credit co-writer Jemaine Clement] manage to make this group of characters likable. That’s kind of amazing.
It comes across in the pacing, too. That’s true in “Boy,” as much as it is in “Shadows.” Waititi’s films hum along, aren’t overstuffed with needless comedic bits and focus on character development and story. Waititi is a director first and a writer second. He leans on his experience as a writer to make his films better, but doesn’t insist on including bits just because they’ve been written; that makes his films better.
His best work, which I wrote about briefly here is Hunt for the Wilderpeople. It’s one of the best films of 2016 and combines everything you’ve come to expect from Waititi. There’s humor, a non-conventional family dynamic, people calling other people dickheads and an actor from “Jurassic Park” with a great turn.
The thread that sets Waititi apart in all of these films, even “Ragnarok,” is his honest filmmaking. There’s an authenticity to the way the stories are told, and the themes he chooses to visit (and revisit) that frankly aren’t given by other filmmakers. Perhaps it’s because he so readily physically inserts himself into his films, or that the majority of Waititi’s features take place in New Zealand, but there’s something raw behind the humor that’s very accessible. I’ve seen a handful of people write we don’t deserve Waititi recently — they’re right, but I’m glad he’s decided to share himself with us.