When it was revealed New Zealand filmmaker Taika Waititi would take the reins of the Thor franchise, it seemed a bold move. Marvel had already hired and then parted ways with one director with very particular comic sensibilities — Edgar Wright, who was replaced on Ant-Man by Peyton Reed — and if there was one thing Waititi had demonstrated across his then-three-film directing career, it was his own distinctive tone and humour.
He had Eagle vs Shark, Boy and What We Do in the Shadows to his name — all New Zealand-made indies — and hadn’t helmed a bigger budget feature. When Waititi was announced as Thor: Ragnarok’s director in October 2015, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, which would garner him significant international acclaim and attention, hadn’t yet premiered — it would first screen at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.
Of course, Marvel had clearly realised something viewers had as well, and that still remains true now both Hunt for the Wilderpeople and Thor: Ragnarok have played to adoring audiences. It’s simple, but obvious. In short: Waititi has never made a bad movie.
There’s a personality to Waititi’s films that stamps them as unmistakably his; an irreverent mood, and a handling of comedy to go with it, that would clearly wilt if forced to bend to someone else’s vision. His are features where outsiders roam freely, eccentricities are celebrated and the notion that there’s no such thing as an ordinary family proliferates — and where the concept of a mockumentary about a sharehouse filled with vampires combines all of the above smartly and hilariously. That idea, for What We Do in the Shadows, stemmed from a 2005 short film co-directed with Jemaine Clement, one of several highlights of an equally impressive short filmmaking career. In fact, Waititi earned an Oscar nomination for his second short, Two Cars, One Night, which turns a childhood rivalry into unlikely connection, all in two cars parked outside of a New Zealand pub.
Waititi’s feature debut, Eagle vs Shark, might be his messiest so far, but it showcased another key element to his work: sweetness. This account of shy songwriter Lily (Loren Horsley), video game store clerk Jarrod (Jemaine Clement) and the awkward romance that forms between them oozes with warmth of the relatable and non-saccharine kind. Their courtship is clumsy; modest sparks fly when they’re each dressed as the titular animals at a party, but the path to true love is anything but smooth, whether she’s deciding he’s her boyfriend, he’s failing to turn up to dates or they’re road-tripping to his hometown. It’s amusing, accessible and idiosyncratic all at once. Upon its release, the film was compared to Napoleon Dynamite, though Waititi wasn't crafting a cringe-comedy copy.
If Eagle vs Shark showed Waititi could translate his short filmmaking skills to the feature-length realm, Boy gave his brand of comedy its first big moment to shine. And it highlighted Waititi’s on-screen prowess as well, playing the idolised but frequently absent father of the eponymous 11-year-old (James Rolleston). Boy’s charm springs as much from its smiling but never sugar-coated look at their fractured relationship as its offbeat antics and jokes, wholeheartedly and humorously championing the notion that a loving family really is what you make of it. For the movie’s characters, that includes worshipping Michael Jackson, making up outlandish stories and facing harsh realities, and learning to do so together. For the audience, it meant an affectionate and engaging effort that became New Zealand’s top box office performer of all time up until that point.
It took four years for Waititi to follow up the enormously popular Boy with What We Do in the Shadows. It was worth the wait — and it gave Waititi another box office record, cracking the top 10. Popularity doesn’t always equate to quality, but the filmmaker’s fare strikes a chord with a wide range of viewers because it’s comedic, clever and feels completely, wholly his own. In a movie co-written and co-directed by Clement, Waititi takes an even more prominent role as an actor, too, as one of the four bloodsuckers cohabiting in Wellington, arguing about literally bloody dishes and having trouble enjoying the city’s nightlife given they need an invitation to set foot inside any premises. Sequel We’re Wolves, about the vampire’s lycanthrope enemies; television spin-off Wellington Paranormal, focusing on the film’s bumbling cops investigating supernatural cases; and a US TV remake, about an American documentary crew, are all in the works, speaking to the feature’s broad appeal as well as its lived-in feel. Watching the quartet going about their not-quite lives, it’s easy to imagine their entire world thanks to the rampant detail Waititi and Clement depict and evoke.
Indeed, at the heart of Waititi’s films, along with the sweetness and the focus on family, sits a simple truth: that being specific, in tone, gags and details, can also be universal. Revelling in the minutia is one of the things he does best, as New Zealand’s now-number one locally made box office hit, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, demonstrates perfectly. An instant picture is formed of 12-year-old Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) the moment the audience meets him, not just from the hilarious description of his offences by child services worker Paula (Rachel House) — graffiti, littering, smashing stuff, burning stuff, breaking stuff, stealing stuff, throwing rocks and running away — but thanks to everything from his hunched posture to his clearly shy demeanour, indicating a kid who isn’t accustomed to feeling accepted or loved.
As he finds a home with the kindly Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and cranky Hec (Sam Neill), this real bad egg flourishes in particular but thoroughly relatable circumstances. And when he runs off and ends up lost in the woods with Hec, sparking a manhunt and a media frenzy, it’s the little things that resonate alongside the big jokes, be it Hec expressing affection in the only ways he knows how or Ricky’s colourful description of the skux life.
His second fantastic feature in two years, Thor: Ragnarok initiated Waititi into the bigger end of town in style. Two online shorts, released in the lead-up to the movie and exploring Thor’s (Chris Hemsworth) non-Avengers life on Earth, helped temper any worries about Waititi’s humour being forced to conform to Marvel’s template, while the film itself eradicated them completely. It might be the first effort he has directed that he didn’t also write, but it’s a natural fit. As a character, Thor has always been one of the goofiest of the superhero bunch, as you’d expect of a literal god struggling with the realities of existence among mortals. Styled aesthetically and tonally as a raucous, radiant '80s-esque space opera, the end result follows the franchise’s narrative playbook while resounding with Waititi’s visual flair and unmistakable humour, as well as his penchant for eccentricity and unusual families.
With an animated movie about Bubbles, Michael Jackson’s famous chimp, next on Waititi’s slate, here’s hoping his golden touch continues.
Wednesday 30 December, 7:55pm on SBS World Movies (streaming after at SBS On Demand)
New Zealand, 2010
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Director: Taika Waititi
Starring: James Rolleston, Taika Waititi, Te Aho Eketone-Whitu, Mavis Paenga
Watch 'Hunt for the Wilderpeople'
Friday 25 December, 7:35pm on SBS World Movies (streaming after at SBS On Demand)
Saturday 26 December, 5:30pm on SBS World Movies
Sunday 27 December, 4:55am on SBS World Movies
New Zealand, 2016
Genre: Comedy, Adventure
Director: Taika Waititi
Starring: Sam Neill, Julian Dennison, Rima Te Wiata