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[Warning: This story contains minor spoilers for Thor: Ragnarok]
If you’re just now discovering the wonderful, technicolor world of director Taika Waititi with Thor: Ragnarok, some good news: there’s plenty more from the filmmaker waiting for you to explore.
Waititi started off as a comedian working with Flight of the Conchords‘ Jemaine Clement in a two-man stage show about Maori myths, but quickly transitioned to film alongside Clement, including directing episodes of HBO’s Conchords. Oddball comedy forms the foundation of all Waititi’s work, finding its way beneath his many pseudo-realistic tales (often about youthful New Zealanders embracing escapism). Clement and Waititi honed their sometimes-dry, sometimes-outrageous humor and worked together on Waititi’s first feature, the whimsical and strange 2007 film Eagle vs. Shark, after Waititi’s short Two Cars, One Night was nominated for an Academy Award.
That brings us to where you should start your Waititi voyage: 2010’s Boy, his second feature, which grew from the short. Like Ragnarok, it’s got ‘80s aesthetics, unexpected laughs and plenty of complex family relationships. James Rolleston plays the Maori kid Boy, whose younger brother Rocky (Te Aho Eketone-Whitu) believes he has dangerous mental abilities (think Eleven from Stranger Things, except all in his head) and whose parents are out of the picture (one dead, one in prison).
Both Boy and Ragnarok are filled with Waititi’s signature combination of outrageous lines delivered with absolute deadpan. And both deal with paternal imperfections. In Ragnarok, a battle rages between siblings Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Loki (Tom Hiddleston), as Odin (Anthony Hopkins) leaves the pair when they need him most. Boy features similar father-induced anxiety, as the estranged dad Alamein (played by Waititi) returns to children who only know him through the legends they’ve cooked up in his absence. Alamein is just a small-time criminal, but to his children, he’s a samurai, a war hero. These fantasies grow out of necessity, much as Thor and Loki have created an alternate history for Odin that masks his bloodthirsty past with their sister Hela (Cate Blanchett).
Finding the realism in the most absurd situations and vice-versa is Waititi’s strength. Understanding the rivalry between brothers, even if they’re gods, is as important to Waititi as sussing out the intricacies of living as a modern vampire in his 2014 vampire film What We Do In The Shadows. Boy’s relationships are no different, seemingly tragic on the surface but layered with charming, poignant fantasies that give the nuanced drama the pointed perspective of a child. Waititi excels at finding the details of the family relationships in Ragnarok and Boy, and putting the psychological bargaining of their characters on screen in creative ways — from beyond-the-grave conversations or daydreams of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” music video.
Waititi is earning praise as an actor for his mo-cap role in Ragnarok as Korg, the soft-spoken, rebellion-minded rock alien. His performances, which stand out as more fun in Hollywood films, have a particular New Zealand charisma. Like his indie films, his performances are disarmingly quiet but completely winning, lightly finding every subtle scrap of charm in every corner of every great line.
The scales of these films are much different compared to Ragnarok, as nothing can really compete with Marvel’s budget, but they’re full of the heart on display in the blockbuster. Waititi’s indies are everything small-scale films should be, making any production compromises into endearing imperfections rather than the marks of over-ambition.
His first foray into the world of blockbusters had every opportunity to stamp out his calling cards, but instead it exists as a lesson to filmmakers — especially indie darlings that are more and more groomed for large franchise films — of how to continue exploring their pet themes inside of a larger corporate/fantasy infrastructure. It’s a cynical vision of success to be sure, but as small movies get smaller and the large ones inflate to impossible levels, finding the overlap wherever possible is often the best audiences can hope for. This sustained creative overlap may continue to keep Thor: Ragnarok’s critical consensus positive, but more importantly than that, it may inspire many people to discover one of the most creative and distinctive filmmakers working today.
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