Lily is a mousy hopeless romantic who has a crush on Jarrod, a guy who works at the local videogame store. When she finally gets him to notice her, she agrees to help him return to his hometown and face the bully who ruined his life as a child.
Eagle vs Shark seemed to be trying really hard to be the next Napoleon Dynamite, and I don’t think that is a good thing. Since Napoleon Dynamite took the world by storm, more intelligent quirky indie fare has come out to show how uninspired Napoleon really was. With Little Miss Sunshine and Juno earning Oscar nominations, and both winning the award for writing, the indie movie is once again being recognized as somewhat important. With that said, the success of those two films will ensure that Napoleon Dynamite remains only a footnote in film history, if remembered at all.
The unfair argument against Napoleon Dynamite has been that it is a movie about nothing. The fact of the matter is Napoleon Dynamite is about the hardships outcasts face in a public that demands conformity. The movie began with Napoleon playing by himself and ended with him finally finding someone quirky like him to play with. It is about outcasts realizing they are no longer alone in the world, and finding someone they can relate to. Eagle vs Shark tells the same story, with many of the same qualities of Napoleon Dynamite, but manages to work on a level that its predecessor never managed to reach.
Eagle vs Shark tells the story of an awkward outcast named Lily (Loren Horsley) who works at a burger joint and finds herself unable to connect with anyone. She lives with her brother who spends most of the movie doing imitations of movie characters (Terminator, Austin Powers, etc…). It is never annoying as we watch him through the eyes of Lily, who adores the ground he walks on. To see her admiration of him and her laughter when he mimics the voices from the movie is heartwarming. You grow to care about Lily after seeing how she is treated in her everyday life. Her troubles start early in the movie when the burger joint has to fire someone and decide to do it by drawing names out of a hat. Lily’s name is drawn and she is told she can finish out the week and then will be terminated.
Lily’s dream is to meet this guy who eats at the burger joint a little after noon every day. The guy never really notices her and seems more interested in the hot cashier, who could care less about him one way or the other. One day when the hot girl is off work, he finally approaches Lily and she gives him free fries to try to get his attention. She learns his name is Jarrod (Jemaine Clement), and he hands Lily an invitation to a party he is throwing to give to the hot girl. The hot girl laughs at the invitation and throws it in the trash. When Lily retrieves it, she sees all the names from the hat have her name on them. She realizes they had predetermined to fire her. Distraught, she decides to go to the party herself to try to get to know Jarrod.
The party is a Favorite Animal party, where everyone comes dressed as their favorite animal. Lily comes as a shark and Jarrod is there as an eagle. After Lily wins a video game fighting tournament to earn the chance to play Jarrod for the championship trophy, she finally gets his attention. After letting him beat her, the two finally agree to have sex. Following the sex, he tells her about the plan he has developed to return home and beat up the bully who used to torment him in high school. This leads to a trip back to his hometown to complete his plan. While there she meets his family and learns reasons why Jarrod is as emotionally crippled as he is.
The film works better than Napoleon Dynamite in large part because of the character of Lily. She is a lonely misfit yet carries the charm of a hopeless romantic who has only the sweetest desires and wants. There is nothing about her character that screams desperate and her innocence is pure. Jarrod, on the other hand, is very similar to Napoleon Dynamite. When he talks about his mastery of videogames, his choice of the eagle over the cobra as his favorite animal, and his hard work at training to fight his nemesis, it screams loser. The way he treats Lily and his family makes you really despise his character. He has a daughter that he only sees on rare occasions and most of what he tells Lily turns out to be fabrications to make things seem better or worse than they really are. What Lily sees in him is unclear, but the fact she loves him and fights to make it work makes you really cheer for her throughout.
There are moments in the movie that really struck me as original and inspired. When Jarrod finally faces off against the guy who “ruined his life” we get the quirky moment expected in this type of movie. However, at this point you expect the movie to move into familiar territory but it veers off. It does something completely unexpected and you can’t help but shake your head at the result. Even the moments that are becoming the norm for indie features, such as Jarrod training for the fight by simulating karate movies in a lake wearing nothing but a speedo, work here as we see many of these moments through the eyes of Lily.
Another unusual trait for the movie is the occasional use of stop motion animation at points in the story. Taika Waititi, who worked on The Flight of the Conchords, at various points in the film switches to animation during specific scenes. At one point when Lily and Jarrod lie on a hill, wrapped in sleeping bags, stop motion is used to move Jarrod away from her and down the hill with Lily in chase. It is inspired and experimental and works really well in the context of the story. There is also some stop motion animation involving a rotten apple and a discarded candle that symbolizes the two main characters.
Eagle vs Shark will never be as popular as Napoleon Dynamite but exceeds it on every level. Waititi has a really sharp eye and his filmmaking style reminds me of Michel Gondry. He receives pretty powerful performances from a cast of unknowns and put together a coming-of-age tale that works well on almost every level. It is a film that requires patience, but if you make it past the Napoleon Complex similarities to its fellow genre films, you will find a movie with just enough quirks to make it charming.
The video is shot in 1.85:1 and the sound is in Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound. It looks and sounds fine for a small film. There are a huge number of deleted scenes you can watch with or without commentary. Waititi mentioned that he cut over an hour out of the film and a lot of that is recreated here. I don’t think I have ever seen this many deleted screens on a disc like this before. There are also a number of outtakes which are never really that funny. There is a music video for “Going Fishing” by the Phoenix Foundation. It mixes clips from the movie with the band. It’s generic indie music and is nothing special. There is also an audio commentary track with Taika Waititi and various guests, both live and over the telephone. Waititi is very laid back and pretty sell-defacing and funny. He keeps the commentary easy going and it flows well as he asks many questions of the cast members throughout the commentary.