Wednesday, January 22, 2020

In Laman's Terms: Taika Waititi, Dangerous Fantasies and Gradual Self-Improvement

In Laman's Terms is a weekly editorial column where Douglas Laman rambles on about certain topics or ideas that have been on his mind lately. Sometimes he's got serious subjects to discuss, other times he's just got some silly stuff to shoot the breeze about. Either way, you know he's gonna talk about something In Laman's Terms!


Taika Waititi's directorial works are known for being silly. They star kids who think the height of gangster activity is knocking over mailboxes, vampires who do dark bidding over tables on the internet and Korg the rock monster. Humor is a constant presence, the production & costume design frequently employs bright colors, heck, his first movie being titled Eagle vs. Shark seems to set the stage for a filmography built exclusively on wackiness. But as anyone who's actually seen Waititi's movies knows, his works aren't just a bunch of eccentric quirks. Much like The Princess Bride or the best Muppet productions, Waititi's films typically start out as uber-zany while sneaking up on you with just how emotionally invested you've become in the characters on-screen.

Part of this is due to the fact that Waititi's films tend to actually be about pretty hefty material. Even his crowdpleaser Marvel Studios blockbuster, Thor: Ragnarok, was about the horrors of imperialism so you can imagine what sort of thematic ground his smaller-scale features cover. Across three of these works (Boy, Hunt for the Wilderpeople and Jojo Rabbit), one finds a particularly thoughtful recurring storytelling detail. Specifically, these works each follow the mind of an adolescent protagonist that has turned to some sort of fantasy to cope with the absence of a critical parental figure. In the process, this fantasy leads to problems in their everyday life of coping with the harshness of reality.

Of course, that's a very broad description and Waititi's assorted stories do a great job of differentiating themselves from one another. The most intimate of the bunch, Boy, for example, is most explicit in exploring this material. Whereas the other two movies have the child leads becoming immersed in fantasies that make them (in theory) independent from other people, Alamein (James Rolleston), the protagonist of Boy, is wrapped up in a fantastical vision of who his absent-father is. The idea of who his father is soon challenged once his dad does show up again only because he needs to find a buried bag of money. At first, Alamein happily helps his father in this cause, still believing his Dad is solely the figure from his fantasies, in the process isolating himself from his friends.

Soon, though, the vast gap between fantasy and reality becomes readily apparent to Alamein, just as it eventually does for the other two child protagonists in Waititi's filmography. One of those two protagonists is Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison), the star of maybe Waititi's best film, Hunt for the Wilderpeople. Fantasy is a critical element in the story even beyond the fact that Ricky Baker amusingly thinks of himself as an archetypical gangster. The primary plot is kicked off when Baker tries to fake his own death to evade child services workers. Avoiding reality is what sends Baker and curmudgeon father-figure Hector (Sam Neil) onto a journey across the wilderness. Such a fantasy getting more and more out of control provides the majority of the conflict in the plot, culminating in a quiet ending where both Ricky and Hector are forced to confront reality in the form of a new foster family and a prison sentence, respectively.

Jojo Rabbit expands Waititi's exploration of the dangers of becoming too immersed in fantasy to its largest canvas to date. Not only is the titular protagonist a ten-year-old boy (Roman Griffin Davis) who becomes horrifically immersed in Nazi propaganda for a number of reasons, including as a way of coping with the absence of his father. For the first time, though, a Waititi feature doesn't just show damaging fantasies in its lead character. Jojo Rabbit depicts an entire society consumed by the same toxic fantasy (in this case, the idea that Jewish people or any other minority are group is inherently inferior). Nazi Germany is inhabited with adults who, like Jojo, are fully committed to the Nazi and serve as examples of what happens when you never come to terms with reality.

In prior films, Waititi showed kids who did have a moment of an epiphany regarding the dangers of clinging to fantasies at the expense of reality. Here, supporting characters played by the likes of Stephen Merchant, Rebel Wilson and Sam Rockwell show who you become when you divorce yourself from reality. They serve as the sort of Ghosts of Christmas Future to Jojo's Ebenezer Scrooge. To boot, an opening scene of Jojo and other local children frolicking at a summer camp teaching youngsters to commit horrifying Nazi atrocities show how these fantasies get passed down from one generation to the next. Such widespread commitment to these fantasies doesn't just happen in a vacuum, they're instilled in citizens from a young age.

Jojo, like the other two child protagonists in Waititi's canon, is heavily defined by the fantasies that instill a warped worldview. But like Alamein and Ricky Baker, Jojo does eventually realize the world is a far more complex place than he previously believed. This is where the writing of Waititi becomes especially brilliant as his films never wrap up a tidy bow on these character transformations. By the end of Boy, Alamein doesn't have his life entirely figured out, there's still so many miles left on his road to mental recovery. But the fact that he can strike up a conversation with his estranged father, well, that offers hope for the future.

As for Hunt for the Wilderpeople, well, this has the happiest ending of the three films as Ricky Baker and Hector poignantly reunite to find a bird that was previously thought to be extinct. Instead of working together on an inevitably dangerous fantasy, now the two can pair up for adventures firmly set in reality. Jojo Rabbit makes Waititi's gradual approach to personal growth apparent by having Jojo look at himself in the mirror and then encourage himself to "do the best [he] can". Somedays, that's all we can do. The restrictive dangerous Nazi rhetoric he used to spout into his reflection is now replaced with words more conscious of his own humanity and, most importantly, the humanity of the others.

Directly after this, the sense of uncertainty seen in Boy re-emerges as Jojo and Elsa Korr (Thomasin Mackenzie) realize they have no idea what to do now, there is no set plan for them even as World War II has come to an end. But as they engage in a bit of dancing just before the credits roll, Waititi instills some hope in the viewer through another crucial recurring element of his works: human connection. All three of these films see child protagonists tossing aside fantasies in favor of connecting to other human beings in confines firmly rooted in reality. Taika Waititi's movies are rife with hysterical comedy but through these three entries in his filmography, we also see how substantive his works are. All of those laughs are paired up with emotionally moving explorations of the costs of committing to toxic fantasies (particularly, in the case of Jojo Rabbit, fantasies predicated on bigotry). The Skux life may be enticing, so too is the idea of your long-absent father being a flawless mythic figure. But only in reality can we healthily confront our emotions, genuinely connect with others and, above all else, do the best we can.

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