If even a modest mainstream hit can turn Hollywood into your oyster, than Taika Waititi’s universe is now a string of pearls.
Waititi has been on the industry’s radar for more than a decade, since his first film release, the 2004 short “Two Cars, One Night,” scored an Oscar nomination (a short that later begot the feature film “Boy”). But he was in no hurry to make big-budget movies like his somewhat subversive new “Thor: Ragnarok,” which has grossed more than $430 million worldwide.
Unlike other Marvel directors such as James Gunn and the Russo Brothers, Waititi has such an uncommon approach to directing a superhero movie that he might not even accept a shot at a sequel if Disney and Team Feige offered. It wasn’t even Thor, as character or story, that particularly attracted the New Zealand native to saying yes to entering the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
“When I think of the comics, not much” is appealing, Waititi tells The Washington Post of the Thor stories. “Other than, he’s basically an alien, he has access to these different worlds, and that’s a cool way of (taking) the audience on an interesting adventure. He can fly in outer space and … meet these crazy characters that you’d never see on Earth.”
(As for the Thor visuals as opposed to the comics stories, Waititi does acknowledge: “All these ’70s comic books were so bright and colorful with these splash pages and bold art. … It was a conscious decision to embrace that Jack Kirby art” in “Ragnarok.”)
When talking with Waititi, you get the sense that he would get easily bored if he stuck with one genre or franchise for too long. As a kid, he says, he was attracted to painting and writing and theater and music, and filmmaking simply became a way to integrate all those passions. As a 42-year-old filmmaker, his interests seem creatively free-ranging and voracious.
Still, there are through-lines. Ever since partnering with Jemaine Clement (“Flight of the Conchords,” “Moana”) two decades ago in an improv troupe after meeting at university in New Zealand, the constants in Waititi’s eclectic film career have been finding laughter in pain, locating relatable realism in the absurd, and exploring family dysfunction and the journeys of an outsider.
All those elements work winningly in such indie films of his as “Eagle vs. Shark” and “What We Do in the Shadows” (both co-starring Clement), as well as “Hunt for the Wilderpeople,” and even his early mockumentary short “Flight of the Conchords: The Road to the Edinburgh Fringe Fest,” in which he plays a clueless band manager worthy of “This Is Spinal Tap.” (Even a Waititi TED talk is amusing as a self-aware intellectual walkabout — at times nearly a TED talk deconstructed.)
Yet now that Waititi’s form of close-magic deadpan and perpetual irony has been embraced by “Ragnarok”-loving filmgoers, where does he go from here?
Well, one fittingly offbeat project is a stop-motion animated film that centers on Michael Jackson’s pet chimpanzee, Bubbles. “It’s about Michael Jackson’s life a little bit,” says Waititi, who has spoken of his fascination with the pop star, “but it’s more about this animal is (thrust) into this very strange world.”
Again, the lure of the outsider tale — be it quirky romantics dressed as eagles and sharks (hence the title of his 2007 film), or a chimp trying to make his way in Neverland.
Either way, at work is a creatively subversive free spirit that, like the fictional Neverland’s hero resident, loves to fly in the face of reality armed with wit, playfulness and a killer sense of the absurd.
Hollywood now spreads out before Waititi for the taking. Whatever the path, you can be sure the flight won’t be dull.