Written and directed by Taika Waititi, Jojo Rabbit
stars Roman Griffin Davis as Jojo, a lonely German boy living during the end of
World War II and whose world view is turned upside down when he discovers his
single mother (Scarlett Johansson) is hiding a young Jewish girl (Thomasin
Mackensie) in their house. Aided only by his idiotic imaginary friend, Adolf
Hitler (Taika Waititi), Jojo must confront his blind nationalism.
A satirical look at the Nazis and Europe during World War II
is not a new concept in film. The Great Dictator, To Be Or Not To Be,
Life is Beautiful, and even The Producers (to an extent), have
all taken a look at the insanity within the Nazi Party and the madness of Adolf
Hitler. Some have been more subtle and even-handed than others, but what
surprises me is that many people in the entertainment news cycle have seemingly
forgotten about this cinematic history. Taika Waititi hasn’t. In an era when
neo-Nazis and white supremacy is rising in prominence in the Western world that
makes the existence of Jojo Rabbit
all the more vital.
At first, the story of a boy whose imaginary friend is Adolf
Hitler sounds odd and treacherous, but Waititi handles such an idea with aplomb
because he, maybe better than many directors, understands a child’s
perspective. In Boy and Hunt for the Wilderpeople he showed how a
child might interpret events around them that are confusing, challenging, and
emotional in fantastical or simplistic ways. Now he pits a young boy against
the ideas of hatred, bigotry, unbridled anger, and fear, meaning that what we
get out of Jojo Rabbit is an
important lesson on how to reject these ideas in favour of love and compassion.
This is still a Waititi film so it’s quite a fun one for the
most part. The officers in the army, the ridiculous nature of training children
to uphold a crumbling regime, and the small details of army uniforms being made
of paper due to lack of materials or the ludicrous ideas that the German people
had about Jews are all amplified by the casting decisions. You don’t just cast
Stephen Merchant as a Gestapo officer because he’s tall, or Sam Rockwell for
his dance moves, as such, their presence elevates the satirical look at Nazism.
When seven members of the Gestapo walk into a room, every
single one of them greets people with individual “heil Hitlers” which makes the
scenario take five times longer than it should, only adding to the paper-thin
nature of the effectiveness of this regime towards the end and amplifying the
ludicrous nature of their existence via comedy. Of which, Waititi uses as a
means to tear down scary ideas, proving that with clever touches of character,
tone, and style, we can laugh at the
Nazis while still knowing how awful they were.
Roman Griffin Davis is wonderful as Jojo, a boy so wrapped
up in the Nazi ideology that it takes him the whole film to realise that Jews
don’t have horns and Hitler is an asshole. Davis plays Jojo with a blind
naiveté and bluntness that feels instantly believable in the world Waititi
establishes, and when he starts to understand what the world is like around
him, you best believe I was rooting for Jojo to keep making the right
decisions, namely, run away, and to keep bumping into his sweet-as-hell best
friend-turned child soldier Yorki (Archie Yates).
Thomasin McKenzie continues a great streak of solid
performances starting with Leave No Trace and more recently in True
History of the Kelly Gang. As the older and more pessimistic Elsa who
is trying to survive by any means necessary, McKenzie starts to become the
sister that Jojo was never able to have, and maybe if he did have a sister long
ago, things may have turned out differently for him and his mother.
I enjoyed supporting performances from Merchant, Alfie
Allen, and Rebel Wilson, the latter of whom I usually can’t tolerate but when
used sparingly here she’s tolerable. Scarlett Johansson is receiving large
attention for her role as Jojo’s mother Rosie and deservedly so, but her actual
role in this film caught me by surprise. She makes a massive, eccentric impact
on the narrative, sinking her teeth deep into a role with so much weight and
importance behind it, making her absence later in the piece be felt in the best
way. Her presence means something to the characters and defines them going
Sam Rockwell immerses into a role that demands a level of
emotional complexity beyond just being some Nazi officer full of hatred and
greed. His Captain Klenzendorf represents the father that Jojo is missing, and
at every step of the way Klenzendorf is actually there to help him in ways that
can never be too obvious for fear of death. Rockwell gives another terrific
performance, reminding us why he’s an Academy Award winner.
Jojo Rabbit, is more than Oscar bait; a wild premise
incorporating historical importance, modern relevance, and thick social
commentary performed by a few actors that awards bodies like. Jojo Rabbit seeks a deeper conversation
about the effects of fascism on young minds, how tempting it can all be to be
given power where you would never be able to get it before, and the
incentivisation of blind, uninformed hatred. This isn’t like The Boy in the
Striped Pyjamas where the boy’s innocence is a source of tragedy, instead
Jojo takes command of his story and by the time the war has ended, he’s already
on the path to being a better person, someone who’ll grow up to do the right
thing and encouraging others to do so too.
Plus, he gets to kick the imaginary Führer friend out of a
window like a superhero while spitting at him “Fuck off Hitler!’.
Jojo Rabbit is well-shot
by brilliant cinematographer Mihai Mălaimare Jr., giving everything this colourful quality that is
period-accurate seeing as Germany embraced a colourful pop mentality in their
homes and architecture as a result of thinking everything was going to be just
fine. The production design from Ra Vincent is responsible for this accuracy,
landing us in the world of 1945 Berlin, immersing us in the reality of the day,
especially in some of the climactic assault scenes. I did find that Michael
Giacchino’s store, while nice and sweet on its own, could have been better
integrated into the film seeing as he is one of the best composers working
Jojo Rabbit will not be everyone’s cup of tea. It confronts these ideas of Nazism
and fascism head-on in a satirical way that I responded to with open arms. This
is a comedy, sure, but it knows when to be tense and emotional and have a real
meaning. Waititi is not the kind of filmmaker to always resort to the joke
instead of what’s necessary to the story. All of his films start in eccentric
and wild worlds but eventually reach a point of deep pain and emotional turmoil
which is the whole reason to make said films in the first place. Jojo Rabbit
is no different and thanks to winning performances and a deft directorial hand,
I left the theatre enlightened yet delighted at seeing a story so necessary
come to such brilliant life.
Griffin Davis, Thomasin McKenzie, Scarlett Johansson
Writer: Taika Waititi, (based on the novel Jojo Rabbit by Christine Leunens)
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