Nazis. The Hitler Youth. A comedic Adolf Hitler. In the hands of anybody else Jojo Rabbit would most likely be a disastrous career-tanking move but for Taika Waititi (Thor Ragnarok) it only cements his status as one the most exciting, audacious and endearing filmmakers of modern age.
His latest film Jojo Rabbit which is based off the novel by Christine Leunens is a brilliant bit of embellished satire that is sure to spark some backlash given its controversial content. But like any Waititi film, it strikes the perfect balance of comedy and heart.
The film is centred around 10 year old German boy Jojo Betzler (a star-making turn from British actor Roman Griffin Davis) and his imaginary childhood friend Adolf Hitler (played by none other than Waititi himself). Jojo is a proud member of the Hitler Youth and is spending his summer at the Nazi equivalent of an American summer camp. Except instead of kayaking or arts & crafts, activities include; grenade throwing, book burning and spotting the telltale signs of Jewish enemies, such as the serpent tongue, fangs or horns – did I mention this film was controversial?
Jojo is plucky but sensitive and after he fails to impress his Nazi counsellors by killing a rabbit, he is given the disparaging title of “Jojo Rabbit” due to his compassionate nature which they interpret as cowardice. However, after an inspiring pep-talk from his imaginary pal, Jojo is determined to prove that he is in fact not a cowardly rabbit but rather a brave, sneaky and strong rabbit.
Soon after Jojo discovers his Jewish-sympathising mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) is hiding a Jewish girl called Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) in the walls of their house. Jojo believes he’s now found his way to prove himself to his Nazi peers. He aims to befriend Elsa and learn all he can about Jews and document his findings into his exposé book that he calls ’Yoo-Hoo Jews’ – hoping he will get the attention of his idol Adolf Hitler (the real one) and fall into his good graces.
Disney absorbed Jojo Rabbit in the acquisition of Fox and it makes sense why they would choose to debut the film in a place as liberal as TIFF. Given the controversial subject, this was always going to be a film that nestled on the sharp blade between genius and distasteful. While undoubtedly the film won’t be to everybody’s taste, the “anti-hate” vibes that Jojo Rabbit gleefully emits, means it will more than likely be a major crowd-pleaser.
From the opening scene where we see Adolf help psych Jojo up for the Hitler Youth, Waititi succeeds in creating an infectiously fun atmosphere. The friendship dynamic between Griffin Davis and Waititi is endearingly sweet. Waititi’s Hitler is less Führer and more big brother. He’s always on standby with some helpful advice and Waititi is clearly relishing every second.
But it is Roman Griffin Jones who carries this movie. It is Jojo who has the crisis of identity as he begins to see Elsa not as the monster that years of Nazi propaganda has led him to believe but as fellow human and a surrogate big sister. Griffin Jones demonstrates an impeccable knack for comedic timing. I audibly yelped when I heard him say “I’m massively into swastickers”. But he’s also the beating heart of this film and showed no shortage of gravitas in one of the films more upsetting scenes.
There’s excellent work too from Sam Rockwell as camp leader Captain Klenzendorf and Scarlett Johansson as Jojo’s free-spirited mother Rosie. Rebel Wilson, Alfie Allen and Stephen Merchant are in more tertiary roles but make the most with what they have. Waititi’s script and directorial style echoes the work of Edgar Wright – it’s outlandish, fast paced and full of wit. The script is jam-packed full of hilarious witticism about Nazis, Germany and Hitler himself. Some of the most hysterical moments come from simple wordplay as well as the imaginative set pieces – look out for the unicorn head.
To summarise, Jojo Rabbit is a delightfully original satire which could’ve backfired on itself spectacularly. But there’s simply too much fun to be had watching JoJo Rabbit. It’s spearheaded by its unlikely friendships which are beautifully performed. by its cast. There are thousands of ways this film could’ve been botched but Waititi finds a perfect tone of optimism and positively that’s impossible to resist.
5/5 Stars ★★★★★