Director: Taika Waititi
Stars: Scarlett Johansson, Taika Waititi, Roman Griffin Davis, Sam Rockwell, Rebel Wilson
Duration: 108 mins
KRS Releasing Ltd
Watching young Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) revelling in the fact he is about to join Hitler Youth may not be the most appropriate way to open a movie, and I confess to being left a tad slack-jawed as our plucky little protagonist puts on his uniform and stares at the Nazi insignia in undisguised awe.
“Jojo Betzler, 10-and-a-half years old,” he says as he stares at his reflection in the mirror. “Today you join the ranks of the Jungvolk… You are in peak mental and physical condition. You have the body of a panther and the mind of… a brainy panther. You are a shiny example of shiny perfection.”
He then heads off to camp where, among the things he and his peers are taught how to throw live grenades, insult Jews and burn books. But he also becomes the target of some older bullies who try to coerce him into killing a rabbit.
That Jojo’s best (imaginary) friend is Adolf Hitler (Taika Waititi) only adds to the discomfiture. It is not long, however, before the undisputed charms of Jojo Rabbit become amply obvious as we realise that Jojo is simply the product of his environment – a lovely little German town in the 1940s as Nazi troops cause unimaginable death and destruction overseas and young minds are plagued by dangerous propaganda back home.
Jojo is being raised by his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) who lavishes boundless love upon him while working her mysterious job; while his father fights for the fatherland.
Jojo and his best friend, the equally determined, funnily serious, bespectacled Yorki (Archie Yates) know no better than to see their Hitler Youth experience as the first step towards contributing to the Führer’s cause; and so brainwashed is he that it is all that Jojo wants to do with his life. However, the discovery of Elsa (Thomasin Mackenzie), a teenage Jewish girl hiding in the attic at home throws his previously ordered world into chaos.
Jojo Rabbit is at once laugh-out-loud funny and seriously sobering; a jet-black satire laced with lashings of warmth and important life lessons
The treatment of such a dark subject with this lightness of touch is a feat that is pulled off almost flawlessly by Waititi, who also directs, working off a script he wrote based on the book Caging Skies by Christine Leunens.
Jojo Rabbit is at once laugh-out-loud funny and seriously sobering; a jet-black satire laced with lashings of warmth and important life lessons. It takes great audacity to mine a comedy from one of history’s blackest periods, but like great comedy film-makers before him – Charlie Chaplin and Mel Brooks spring to mind – Waititi uses the medium to dissect the horrific ideas of anti-Semitism, discrimination and death spread by Nazi culture and drive home the message that hope is at hand and that hate can be overcome.
That the ensemble is pitch perfect helps no end. With his thick blonde hair and piercing blue eyes Jojo epitomises the Aryan ideal; and Griffin Davis imbues the character with equal parts wide-eyed wonder, youthful enthusiasm, and deep self-doubt as his previously held beliefs come crashing down as his crush on Elsa brings with it the realisation that she is not a monster spawned by the devil that she is depicted to be simply by dint of being Jewish.
Jojo is the glue that holds the ensemble together and he grows before our eyes in his relationship with Elsa, which is simply a delight to behold. Mackenzie brings Elsa to feisty life as she first threatens then begins to look after Jojo. In the meantime, the bond the boy shares with his mother Rosie is unbreakable; and Johansson, who has had a remarkable year what with this, her turn as the Avengers’ Black Widow and her dramatic role in the intimate Marriage Story, is utterly luminous in the role.
Jojo looks up to his Hitler Youth commander Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell) whose overt silliness belies his inner nobility; while the lanky Stephen Merchant has a lovely cameo as a Gestapo officer.
Kudos also to Waititi himself who not only has crafted a script of astute cleverness and zinging dialogue and brought some remarkable well-drawn characters to life – he also gingerly steps into the role of the imaginary Hitler. Without ever presenting him as a character to be admired, he is at once clownish, wise and protective, and expertly personifies the conflict that unfolds in Jojo’s mind; leading to one of the most unusual friendships in modern cinema history.