Jojo Rabbit (2019)
Director: Taika Waititi
Screenwriter: Taika Waititi
Starring: Roman Griffin Davis, Thomas McKenzie, Sam Rockwell, Scarlett Johansson, Taika Waititi, Rebel Wilson, Stephen Merchant, Alfie Allen, Archie Yates
Satire has always been one of cinema’s more daring genres, from Stanley Kubrick’s sharp and bizarre 1964 film Dr. Strangelove to the modern works of Armando Ianucci (The Death of Stalin; In the Loop), and almost always prove controversial because of their hysterical take on often horrific moments in history. Jojo Rabbit is no exception and is a brilliant and hilarious satire on Nazi Germany, but comes with a surprising amount of warmth and heart typically absent in the genre.
The film centres around a young Hitler fanatic Jojo Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis) who aspires to be a part of the Nazi army. He’s naïve and after having second thoughts over killing a rabbit, is dubbed a coward and given the nickname “Jojo Rabbit”. Jojo lives with his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson), who has secrets of her own in the form of Elsa Korr (Thomasin McKenzie), a young Jewish girl that Rosie is helping to hide unbeknownst to her son. Other major characters include the blundering Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell) who runs a youth camp training up soldiers, Fräulein Rahm (Rebel Wilson) an instructor at the camp, and of course the imaginary version of Adolf Hitler (writer and director Taika Waititi) who has an incredible effect on Jojo’s life.
It’s quite an impressive ensemble of characters which lead to some fantastic performances. The undeniable star of the show is Thomasin McKenzie, who after critical acclaim for Leave No Trace is even better here. Elsa is the beacon of hope and innocence, with McKenzie showing her as tough as nails on the surface, but vulnerable and fearful on the inside. It’s truly a star making performance and one surely to throw her in respected awards conversations.
There are also two showcase breakout performances on display here, most notably leading man Roman Griffin Davis. His role requires him to play Jojo as both naïve, innocent and ignorant, whilst remaining likeable throughout. Without a performance as good as this the whole film would fall flat, but Davis pulls it off effortlessly. It’s also the first acting role for Archie Yates who plays Jojo’s adorable friend Yorkie. He has great lines scattered throughout the film, but it’s the way he portrays a sweetness and delightfulness whenever he is on screen that will pull on the heart strings of many audiences.
Oscar-nominated actor Sam Rockwell is unsurprisingly superb, providing many of the film’s laugh out loud moments due to Klenzendorf’s incompetence, but also shining in one of the film’s most moving scenes. Scarlett Johansson is having a banner year with this alongside Marriage Story, and she gives an affectionate, tender performance; a ray of sunshine in a film that has a surprising amount of darkness. It’s Waititi who looks to be having the most fun however, reducing Hitler to nothing more than a jealous, half-witted fool in a role played almost entirely for laughs.
Where Waititi, the screenwriter-director behind Thor: Ragnarok and What We Do In the Shadows, truly shows his genius though is through his masterful screenplay and accomplished direction. He has a brilliant ability to create funny pictures, but also seems determined to examine the human condition, therefore offering deeper, heart-breaking and often inspiring films, of which Jojo Rabbit is one. The story has unflinchingly dark moments that hit you like a ton of bricks, but it is able to rise above them and not drown in their melancholy. His direction compliments the script beautifully and clearly demonstrates the vision that only Waititi could have had. The switch in tones can appear jarring toward the final act, but it’s a necessity to show the true horrors of the time and the story at the film’s heart.
There are many technical aspects of Jojo Rabbit to be in awe of too. The soundtrack is stellar, featuring German-language versions of David Bowie’s “Heroes” and The Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand”, which opens the film with a backdrop of Hitler footage. The costume and production design are both top notch, with an array of colourful attires that wouldn’t look out of place in a Wes Anderson feature.
The use of colour is also one of the film’s strongest points. Many of the film’s lighter moments are shown through bright and vibrant colours that look beautiful on the screen, especially whenever Johansson’s Rosie is present. When the story becomes much darker, the colours become more miserable, with green’s and blue’s becoming murky grey’s.
With Jojo Rabbit, Taika Waititi has accomplished something both hilarious and incredibly affecting. It’s a timeless piece that has an underlying message that’s applicable to many dark moments in history and even today – that love will always win over hate in the end.
Review by Bradley Weir
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