James Clay // Film Critic
TORONTO – In the unlikely comedy JOJO RABBIT, Taika Waititi (director of THOR: RAGNAROK) portrays the world’s most hated man, Adolf Hitler, to great comedic effect. The film that’s being labeled by its own theatrical poster as an “anti-hate satire” sends up the Third Reich in the waining days of World War II as the allies are closing in on the German border.
Played with a sense of magical realism, Waititi’s film finds the same sweetness that has run through his entire career. Waititi has an uncanny ability to find strange interpretations of dire war-torn situations. He’s not just making this film for the sheer shock value; Waititi is far too clever for that.
Instead, he frames his film as a coming-of-age tale about a young boy named Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis in a wonderful debut), who has a fanatic love for the Nazi regime (like they’re the New York Yankees and Hitler is Derek Jeter.) However, he’s a tender kid that adopts the name “Rabbit” by his fellow Nazis in training at a Hitler youth camp, run by Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell) after he fails to wring the neck of a bunny. Oh yeah, and Waititi’s Adolf Hitler is his imaginary friend.
Jojo is caught in the middle of his blind faith towards the Nazi way of life and his sensitive soul (brought out by his mother Rosie – a lovable Scarlett Johannsson). I never thought I’d get all mushy watching a mother teaching her son to tie his shoes, but JOJO RABBIT brings out moments that offer up tender breaks in from the black humor.
Jojo’s life is thrown into orbit when he discovers a young Jewish girl named Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) is living in the walls of his home. To be honest, all the banter between Jojo and Hitler seem like an afterthought in the grand scheme of things. Sure, his goofy presence is felt all across the film, but it’s his relationship with Elsa that causes the film to resonate. Zany lines like, “I have bomb-proof legs,” coming from Hitler can cause a few outbursts of laughter, but when Waititi shows the butterflies in Jojo’s stomach when he sees Elsa, that’s when the film blossoms into something special.
Waititi’s sugary world is consumed by WWII imagery. It’s a reminder of the awful truths that cost millions of lives, but at the end of the day, he’s satirist – and nothing if off limits creating levity out of tragedy. There’s a lot asked of its audience, but little payoffs along the way make it worthwhile. In coming-of-age stories, characters are asked to change in the snap. Here, Jojo gets a succession of moments that play at the heartstrings. It’s about finding joy in the simple things.
Many praises can be sent to the cast due to the comedic timing they achieve under Waititi’s obscure sense of humor. Rockwell plays the drunk commanding officer disheveled and pretending everything is fine despite his crumbling regime. He surprisingly has a character arc that reaches a satisfying conclusion. And Davis, as the titular Jojo Rabbit, is fantastic; his sweet misguided ways are endlessly endearing. Rebel Wilson and Stephen Merchant get several great lines, and Johannsson has another acting notch on her belt this year after her turn in MARRIAGE STORY.
Some will not find JOJO RABBIT to be humorous for spoofing a black mark on history. But like many others who have found success in this realm (like Mel Brooks and Armando Iannucci), Waititi is opening pathways that uncover new limits in filmmaking.
JOJO RABBIT screened at the Toronto International Film Festival. Encore screenings will be held on September 13 and 15. Visit tiff.net for more information. It will also open Fantastic Fest later this month. Fox Searchlight Pictures will release the film on October 18.