Happy New Year everybody! We made it! 2020, can you believe it? Given the way of the world in recent years, the irony is not lost on me that my first review of the decade is for a film set in Nazi Germany. I was hoping, however, that Taika Waititi would be able to bring me a lot more off beat humour and comic blackness than the news has been offering of late. World War II Germany is a landscape that we have seen countless times in cinema, but I was expecting Jojo Rabbit to bring something a little bit different to the table.
The film tells the story of Johannes ‘Jojo’ Betzler, a ten year old boy living in Nazi Germany in the ebbing stages of World War II. A jingoistic but relatively unknowing young Arian boy who buys into all of the Führer hype, Jojo has a comically juvenile version of Adolf Hitler as an imaginary friend (played by Waititi himself), but perceptions begins to change when he discovers that his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) has been harbouring a Jewish girl in their attic.
Evoking a distinctly Wes Anderson-esque atmosphere, the film operates very much on a tragicomedy level, with humour being found in the most desperate and depressing of subjects from public executions to the wider themes and implications of the Nazi regime. Jojo Rabbit is absolutely at its strongest when leaning into its comedy, which most of the time is pitch perfect and very satirically funny. Where there are slight flaws in the film, however, are in the odd tonal shifts that it attempts on several occasions. The narrative is punctuated with some very dramatic, serious plot moments, but the poor execution and attention to these tonal shifts means that emotional moments don’t always pay off in the ways that they should.
The film doesn’t allow the audience much time to really sit with the slaps in the face that it tries to give, switching from comedy to drama, but then back to comedy too quickly in my opinion. I’m all for movies with shorter running times and quicker paces, but when the core heart of the film suffers from skipping to the next scene too quickly, it is detrimental.
Offbeat takes on Nazi Germany are something that we have been treated to before, something like Inglourious Basterds immediately comes to mind, but I will say that it is different and refreshing, and at times endearing, to have this type of narrative have a child character front and centre.
Of course, putting your entire film in the hands of a child is huge gamble, but it is one that massively pays off here. As Jojo, young Roman Griffin Davis is honestly perfect. For a then eleven year old to have such a brilliant grasp of character and confidence in performance is wonderful, and Jojo proves to be an equal parts frustrating, endearing, sympathetic protagonist who carries the film effortlessly. He already has a Golden Globe Best Actor nomination under is belt, who is to say he can’t contend for the big one?
The supporting cast is an impressive one, with Scarlett Johansson continuing her great on screen year as Jojo’s mother Rosie. She is a sort of fancy free, stylish, modern woman, but also a character wit a great deal of mystery behind her, and it’s all characterisation that Johansson looks comfortable with and proficient at. She’ll be getting many more plaudits for her performance in Marriage Story this awards season, but she’s very enjoyable here too.
Writer/director Taika Waititi is clearly having a blast as an absurd version of Hitler, interacting with Davis’ Jojo at vital point in the narrative but not doing so much that the performance goes over the top into silly scene stealing territory. Sam Rockwell makes an impression, albeit briefly, as an eccentric Captain who runs Jojo’s youth camp. My only casting criticism is reserved for Rebel Wilson, who as a youth camp instructor, pretty much manages to make every scene she is involved in unfunny. Wilson is an actress that I used to look forward to seeing thanks to Bridesmaids and even the first Pitch Perfect, but I have to say I can’t remember the last time I really enjoyed her presence in a movie.
Overall, Jojo Rabbit is a quirky comedy that would have been truly great if it had hit all of its marks tonally, but a few misses in crucial moments means that I can’t go above just a simple ‘good’. It’s a solid offbeat historical piece that takes you through well worn territory in a newer, fresher way, I just wish that the lows and the highs could have been more delicately and effectively transitioned across the narrative. Worth seeing along for the memorable central performance from young Roman Griffin Davis, definitely a name to remember for the future. As Taika Waititi pictures go, this is a perfectly solid addition to his catalogue, but nothing has yet to challenge the perfection of Hunt For The Wilderpeople.