The comparisons between New Zealand director Taika Waititi’s “Eagle vs Shark” and the 2004 American indie “Napoleon Dynamite” are already rolling in, and for good reason. They’re both quirky little comedies with highly animated, nerdy protagonists, and they both rely on the kind of true-to-life observations that jab at funny bones as well as squirm-inducing nerves.
Specific scenes in “Eagle vs Shark” even evoke Napoleon’s liger, his spastic run and his mean tetherball game.
However, to see Mr. Waititi’s project as merely a retread obscures the unique flavors of the tasty import — flavors that go far beyond the exotic-sounding accents of the actors.
Compared to its cult-classic predecessor, this film has greater emotional complexity, more adult-targeted content (cursing, awkward sex scenes, etc.), a minor but unique animated subplot, and a nifty musical score by New Zealand indie rockers the Phoenix Foundation. (Think the Shins meet Monty Python.) In short, the “Shark” might not spawn its own line of T-shirts at Target, but it’s got teeth.
While it’s about a couple of geeks who start dating, the real lead here is a female, which endows the flick with a sweet sensitivity and vulnerability that “Napoleon” and its title character neared but never quite reached.
Her name is Lily (Loren Horsley), and she works at an awful fast-food chain called Meaty Boy. She wants a boyfriend bad and gets her wish after crashing a dress-as-your-favorite-animal party. Disguised as a shark, she sweeps a video game contest and charms the pants off the eagle-costumed host, Jarrod (Jemaine Clement, who may be about to soar into the public consciousness with his new HBO series, “Flight of the Conchords”).
He’s a cocky video game clerk who makes candles. She likes bad fart jokes. They’re an odd couple, but they make it work — until Jarrod decides he’s got to dump her. He’s got no time for broads now that he’s training for an important mission: beating up his grade-school-era buddy. As Lily continues to learn more about him and his eccentric family, though, she finds it harder to give up on what might be her one chance at true love.
Even for audience members who don’t get the dry humor or are immune to the flick’s more poignant aspects, the film’s worth watching, if for no other reason than to get acquainted with Mr. Waititi and his talented cast.
TITLE: “Eagle vs Shark”
RATING: R (Language, some sexy scenes and mild violence)
CREDITS: Written and directed by Taika Waititi.
RUNNING TIME: 87 minutes
WEB SITE: www.eaglevsshark.net
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS
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