Review: Jojo Rabbit

Another deftly balanced satire/comedy/drama from Taika Waititi, Jojo Rabbit is at turns hilarious, grim and heartfelt.

At the bitter end of World War 2, enthusiastic 10 year old Nazi Johannes “Jojo” Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis) yearns to be just like hero Adolf Hitler, who appears as an imaginary friend (Taika Waititi). Struggling to find his place in the war effort, Jojo discovers that as well as he and his mum (Scarlett Johansson), there’s a Jewish girl (Thomasin McKenzie) hiding in his house – posing him with a challenge.

Waititi has become one of the leading New Zealander directors striking it big globally, and after the excellent Thor Ragnarok two years ago he decided to make the most unpredictable and challenging follow up here. His previous films have always had combined laughter and tragedy (most notably the brilliant Hunt for the Wilderpeople), and Jojo Rabbit can be added to that list.

As director and writer (adapting from the book Caging Skies by Christine Leunens), Waititi leverages his Marvel work to get a high profile cast for what might otherwise look a huge risk, but in his capable hands the tonal shifts and borderline outrageous subject matter work well (being of Jewish and Maori descent uniquely places him to make a satirical movie about the Nazis as well)!

And that subject matter will divide people, to be frank. In a world where white supremacy is seeing a disturbing resurgence, taking the piss out of the idiots heroworshipped by 2019 dickheads couldn’t be better timed. What the film manages, via Waititi’s script and irreverent eye, is to make us laugh at the absurdity but never forget the horror sometimes only seconds away.

I wouldn’t say anything comes too close to the bone – but that’s my perspective. Others might have a different view when it comes to some jokes and comments, but this is fairly tame particularly when you consider it’s satirical. It’s when Waititi makes his sudden swerves that you’re thrown out of a comedy comfort blanket and confronted with stark reality – along with the great performances of the leads making the film work emotionally.

The set design and location choices authentically set the scene, particularly the almost painterly or pastel like lighting from Mihai Malaimare Jr, while some decidely modern editing and musical choices (modern tracks sung in German) give everything a more contemporary feel. The score from Michael Giacchino adds drama, humour or horror when required, taking a back seat when needed.

I don’t think the film would work half as well without the authentic, impressive performance from Roman Griffin Davis as Jojo. The actor is excellent, whether articulating the character’s confused perspectives on what he’s experiencing, engaging in flights of fancy with imaginary Hitler or arguing with his mother and Elsa. Like Julian Dennison in Wilderpeople, Waititi unearths a young actor who more than matches his older co stars comedically and emotionally, and without him it’d be much less involving.

MV5BZjU0Yzk2MzEtMjAzYy00MzY0LTg2YmItM2RkNzdkY2ZhN2JkXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNDg4NjY5OTQ@._V1_Johansson is on better form than recently as Rosa, Jojo’s more liberally minded and independent mum – it’s genuinely a surprise and pleasure to see her play someone so different to what we’re used to. She’s not only funny but has a great chemistry with Davis, and also manages to articulate the difficult path to walk as a German single mother who doesn’t share her son’s Nazi enthusiasm.

The third part of the main cast is Thomasin McKenzie as Elsa, the New Zealander waspish, sensitive and amusingly pointed. Her scenes with Davis and Johansson are excellent, as she prods and pokes at Jojo’s stereotypical perspectives or seeks lessons on adult female life from a new mother figure.

The rest of the cast is a bit hit and miss, a sign of the strain that the story has on the tonal balance. Waititi is obviously playing Hitler as a buffoon because that’s Jojo’s imaginary perception of the bastard, and so most of the laughs come from him – though there are times he lets a little of the truly evil out that mark a different edge to Jojo’s inner turmoil. It might not sit well with many viewers, but it’s caricature that’s needed.

The same can’t really be said for casting Rebel Wilson as a nutty Nazi instructor – you’ll know exactly what kind of things her character will say and how she’ll behave, and the only good thing is that she’s sparingly used rather than overpowering everything. Stephen Merchant is similarly offbeat casting (this time as a Gestapo officer) because you know what to expect when he’s onscreen.

There are some elements – like Waititi’s performance – where he engages with more malevolent elements, but it’s still Stephen Merchant – and so like with Wilson it’s good that he’s not in it too much, because the balance between comedy and horror feels in more danger of falling into farce.

Alfie Allen is wasted as the comedic relief in a double act with Sam Rockwell’s Captain Klenzendorf, though Rockwell fares better as the main instructor for the Hitler Youth. He’s great fun as a boozy, unhinged officer demoted to looking after kids, though gets a chance to break out of the humour every so often via some surprising character choices.

Finally, Archie Yates as Jojo’s friend Yorki is another great young performer, bumbling his way through the war and embodying the desperate Nazi rush to arm and train young children to fight for them at the end.

It won’t be for everyone and it’s polarising critical opinion, but for what it’s worth I enjoyed Jojo Rabbit – if you think it’d be for you, make sure to see it in the New Year.

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