By Ryan Keating- Lambert
Taika Waititi’s new film is a creative take on WWII misery and is absolutely hilarious at times, as it is upsetting, and unfortunately that does mean it’s a little tonally off. But, its strength is in its children – they drive this film. And the debut performance of Roman Griffin Davis as the lovable Nazi-obsessed ‘Jojo’ is one of the most memorable of the year.
Based on the novel Caging Skies by Christine Leunens, Jojo Rabbit follows the Hitler-crazed ‘Jojo’ (Davis) who is forced to make a difficult decision when he finds his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) is hiding Jewish girl Elsa (Thomasin Mackenzie) in their house.
The film is a wonderful next step for director Taiki Waititi whose previous films appealed to both audiences and critics. There was the Kiwi treasure Hunt for the Wilderpeople and the psychedelic Thor: Ragnarok which brought some much-needed humour and style to the Marvel franchise, but Jojo is an interesting one because it takes the director’s trademark wit to a whole new level, even if it doesn’t always mesh well with the sensitive subject.
Davis is an adorable little Nazi (have those words ever been uttered?) whose training in the Hitler youth brings out an insatiable hunger to go to war and fight for the Third Reich, encouraged by his imaginary friend – a laugh-out-loud version of Hitler played by Waititi himself.
Waititi is definitely funny as Germany’s infamous war criminal and the buddy relationship he has with Jojo is very endearing, but occasionally it feels just a little too silly and slapstick. Similar to Johansson’s character who is very difficult to get. One moment she appears to be a caring mother with a touch of sarcasm, then a Monty Python-style mad woman whose actions seem a little off in the grand scheme of things. Either way, I did enjoy the use of ‘Shitler’.
Other notable characters include Rebel Wilson’s ‘Fraulein Rahm’, Alfie Allen’s ‘Finkel’, Stephen Merchant’s brief but unforgettable ‘Deertz’ who pays an especially awkward house visit to Jojo (with about fifty ‘Heil Hitlers’) and of course, the legendary Sam Rockwell who plays the flamboyant ‘Captain Klenzendorf’ – the grenade scene is definitely one of my favourites of the year.
But it’s the scenes with Elsa and Jojo that make the film. Waititi clearly has a gift with working with children and capturing their innocence, as well as their bittersweet ignorance. The two learn about each other and come to terms with their people’s differences through enchanting encounters which also involve an amusing picture book on ‘the history of the Jewish people’ written and illustrated by Jojo.
And then there’s little ‘Yorki’, Jojo’s best friend played by the remarkable Archie Yates, who will no doubt be one of the most memorable takeaways (and marketing tools) of the film. There’s even a video of him reading tweets about it.
Basically, Jojo is an anti-Nazi film about our ability to hate what we don’t understand, which is nothing really new… but it is interesting how it uses children as a looking glass. However, unlike The Diary of Anne Frank or The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, humour and childhood giggles play a big part here making it an inventive little piece. Think Wes Anderson after a big night out on the town.
The fact that the film was also shot mainly in the Czech Republic on Czech Film Fund money also makes it a hell of an achievement. Definitely stay for the closing credits – a lot of people you know worked on this film, and they worked hard.