Taika Waititi has rapidly become one of those directors whose work I will go see simply because his name is attached to it. His 2014 indie horror comedy What We Do In the Shadows and his work with Flight of the Conchords has cemented him in my mind as a brilliant writer who knows how to highlight the mundane hilarity in the absolutely absurd.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016), based on the book by Barry Crump, follows the exploits of a delinquent, wannabe gangster (Julian Dennison) who is placed in the care of a couple (Sam Neill and Rima Te Wiata) living out on the edge of the New Zealand bush. Through a series of losses and misunderstandings, the boy, Ricky, and his “Uncle” Hec become stranded in the wilds and accidentally spark a national manhunt.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople is Secondhand Lions meets Up meets Moonrise Kingdom. It’s got Wes Anderson-esque elements: an excellent soundtrack, quirky characters, and chapter titles appearing onscreen. But it manages to stay more grounded and avoid the dollhouse artifice that defines Anderson’s style. Instead, Waititi’s all about little moments between his small cast of characters, which makes it feel more like the first two movies than the third.
The film definitely has moments of deep melancholy, but they are balanced by genuinely heartwarming and hilarious moments. The whole “two lost souls filling a gap in each others’ lives” trope should be clichéd, but Waititi plays it well, never letting it slide too far into saccharine territory. Also, the side characters that pepper the film inject moments of pure side-splitting glee into the story. The best ones include Rachel House as a Child Services agent with Terminator-like determination, Rhys Darby as a tinfoil hat-wearing recluse, and Waititi himself as an awkward minister spouting baffling analogies about Jesus.
Waititi started small, but soon, we’ll see his handiwork play out on one of the biggest cinematic stages to date: the Marvel Universe. He’s the director of Thor: Ragnarok, which comes out this November. The news that he was helming this flick ratcheted my anticipation levels from “Meh” (following the forgettable Thor: The Dark World) to an enthusiastic “Sign-Me-The-Heck-Up.”
The “Team Thor” short that aired while Captain America: Civil War was in theaters encapsulates that Taika-esque tone that pervaded Shadows and hopefully gives us a taste of what we can expect from Ragnarok.
When asked in an interview what elements of his distinctive directorial style will make their way into Ragnarok, Waititi replied, “what I want the audience to leave the cinema carrying with them is a sense of joy, really.”
That sums up his work pretty darn well, I’d say. And I’m all about it.