There are not many directors working today who have taken as big a leap from independent filmmaking to blockbusters and franchises as Taika Waititi. Since the global success of What We Do in The Shadows (2014), which has since been further adapted into a popular FX show on the BBC, Waititi has not only developed in terms of cultural influence, he has also reaffirmed his unique storytelling abilities time and time again. He is an artist who has faith in his own mastery of tone, and has the talent to make any scenario feel incredibly sincere and heartfelt, even if it is far from relatable.
This affectionately named ‘happy-sad cinema’ style of his is often conveyed through the navigation of growing up and interpreting the world with a childlike sense of wonder, even amidst tragic events. There is a fun flare to his films and they are full of energy and life (or rather, a lust for it), and he can make even the most mundane of situations feel truly cinematic. It is no wonder then that his distinct style has resulted in grand-scale production opportunities, such as Thor: Ragnarok (2017), The Mandalorian (2019-) and a future edition to the Star Wars franchise.
Waititi’s sophomore release, Boy (2010) a comedy-drama set in 1984 and filmed where he partly grew up in Waihau Bay, became the highest grossing film in New Zealand at the time of release. It follows the lives of Boy (James Rolleston) and his younger brother, Rocky (Te Aho Aho Eketone-Whitu), who live on their grandma’s farm with several cousins. When their grandma leaves for two weeks to attend a funeral, their estranged father Alamein (Waititi) visits, bringing two members of his “gang”, The Crazy Horses. Boy has always sung his dad’s praises, even though he walked out on them years ago after their mother passed away. Many of the movie’s scenes exist in Boy’s imagination, with various montages depicting Alamein as a soldier, a scuba diver, rugby captain, woodcarver, amongst other things, in an attempt to understand and excuse his father’s absence, by fabricating fascinating reasons for him never visiting home. It also acts as a method of protecting one’s brain against trauma, especially for a child who is unaware of the neglect they have suffered.
The role and influence of the dysfunctional family takes centre stage here, as Boy begins to mimic his father’s behaviour, until the reality begins to seep through the cracks in the brothers’ fantasies, and they understand that he is far from perfect. Recurring motifs include transitions through childlike drawings, acting as a reminder of the naivety and vast imagination of these boys whilst celebrating their ability to escape from their harsh reality. It is Waititi’s humorous and absurd approach that prevents the story from reading as wholeheartedly tragic, further solidified in the glimmer of hope in the film’s final moments.
Waititi’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016), takes the audience back to rural New Zealand, this time based on the novel Wild Pork and Watercress (1986) by Barry Crump. Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison), a juvenile delinquent and hip-hop fan who has jumped from one foster home to another, goes on the run into the bush with his new foster father, “Uncle” Hec (Sam Neill), an ex-convict who makes his harsh feelings for Ricky clear from the start. It is the ultimate low-key adventure film, following the national manhunt that breaks out for the unlikely duo who have both been rejected by society, yet have an air of deadpan comedy throughout. Beyond this, however, is a tragic commentary on the treatment of children like Ricky who are without a proper home or support system. It also touches on grief and the damaging stereotypes surrounding mental health problems, all the while presenting this pure bond between two people who have got nothing left to lose.
Waititi’s most recent film, Jojo Rabbit (2019), won him the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. It’s an offbeat coming of age story following Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis), a young boy growing up in Nazi Germany nearing the end of the Second World War. Oh, and he also has Adolf Hitler (Waititi) as an imaginary friend. Due to the subject matter of the film there was some initial concern regarding the treatment of these harrowing events, but Waititi’s tonal mastery once again elevated the piece in a way that many viewers did not expect possible. How on earth can you write humour about World War II? Well, you can convey the horrors of war through Jojo’s imagination, and address his damaging indoctrination as a character trait but also a cause of family conflict, further distancing himself from his mother (Scarlett Johansson), an active rebel against the Nazis, left to look after Jojo alone.
Presenting Hitler only as a figment of Jojo’s imagination limits his presence as a threat, acting as a goofy friend of Jojo who offers him advice and cigarettes. There is an air of sympathy for all of the children featured in the movie who, like Jojo, have grown up to believe what the Nazis are doing is for the betterment of everyone. His own realisation of the damage caused by them allows him to grow as an individual, to trust in his own instincts. Jojo Rabbit concludes with a line from Rainer Maria Rilke’s poem Go to the Limits of Your Longing: “Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror. / Just keep going. No feeling is final.” This quote reflects the hardships that Jojo and his friends have suffered due to circumstances beyond their control and champions the resistance (of Jojo and Elsa especially) that acts as a tool to their survival. It additionally reinstates Waititi’s approach to storytelling and the lasting message he aims to leave his audience with; things will always get better.
Amidst all the tragedies and life lessons, there is still the presence of light playfulness in the personas of his offbeat characters, bouncing around their narratives like a pinball in an arcade machine, ricocheting off of every surface with a newfound acceptance to each shift in trajectory. And isn’t that what life really is? We plan the best we can, things go wrong, then they go horribly wrong, then they get better and we end up wherever we do, carrying on our back all that we have learnt. It is easy to imagine that this is how Taika strives to approach life and filmmaking, and doing so through this lens of childlike curiosity acts as a reminder to not take life too seriously.
Against all odds, these young boys bounce back from all of the terrible cards they have been dealt, finding their feet somewhere new, somewhere exciting. With Waititi’s movies, there is a strong sense that the adventure extends beyond the wrapping of the narrative – his worlds and characters hold so much depth and such human sincerity that it is easy to picture their existence beyond the frames of the film. The slice of escapism that his filmography offers is truly valuable, and arguably needed now more so than ever.