By Benjamin Akpan
Taika Wiatiti’s Jojo Rabbit – depending on your point of view – might very well be one of the best, or very worst movies of the year. Its premise is wacky, yet extremely risky, and Waititi treads an extremely fine line by even attempting to bring this concept to life. The New Zealand filmmaker takes his oddball style of storytelling out of New Zealand (where his earlier works are set), far from Asgard (where Waititi concocts one of the best Marvel movies with Thor: Ragnarok), and straight to The Third Reich.
The titular character Jojo Betzler is a ten-year-old kid who – borne out of loneliness and lack of friendships – conjures up an imaginary, historically inaccurate Hitler, played with all conceivable irony, by Waititi himself, who so happens to be Jewish. Of course, like every good German kid in 1946, Jojo is indoctrinated in Nazi propaganda, brainwashed with a ridiculous narrative that portrays Nazis as heroes, and Jews as blood-sucking, night-crawling demons that must be killed on sight.
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Prodded on by his imaginary best friend, Jojo is determined to fight for the cause, come what may. So, when he discovers that his mother has been hiding a young Jewish girl in the walls of their house, everything Jojo has come to believe is challenged. Billed as an “anti-hate satire,” Waititi walks a pretty tightrope by poking fun at Hitler and Nazi Germany. He had his work cut out for him, having to present a farcical version of Nazism, without minimizing the perpetrated horrors of the regime.
Waititi’s film delivers a message that we already know: fascism is bad. It’s an overworked, obvious message that should not warrant a two-hour feature film – or so it may seem. 2019 has been ripe with reports of recurring incidents of White nationalism, spurring a worldwide conversation about the politically extreme landscape of the times. With just enough humour and his trademark quirkiness, Taika Waititi delivers an unsurprisingly hilarious satire that fires on all cylinders – and, for a film with a lot of firing and bombing, I mean that just as literally as I do figuratively.
Jojo Rabbit is what you’d get if Wes Anderson made a movie about Nazis – the symmetry in its cinematography; the bright pastels in its costume and production design; and even the rapid, idiosyncratic dialogue. For all that, Jojo Rabbit is unapologetically Waititi. His ability to create a world drenched in absurdity without losing touch of reality is a strength that he amplifies throughout the film, prompting a joyous, strange mess that never ceases to entertain. With razor-sharp wits, top-notch acting, and tension that’s as gripping as it is hysterical, he weaves a heartfelt tale that’s worth the risk.
Taika Waititi is fully aware that the theme of his film is a tough subject to brook, so he lets us wallow in its hilarity for a while – long enough for you to get comfortable with laughing at someone as vile as Hitler. But because comedy and satire can only take you so far when tackling serious issues, Waititi gets pretty somber very quickly. Never shying away from leading with a joke, he takes the time to bring home his message of humaneness by hanging on the moments anchored in tasteful sobriety. Progressively getting more pensive in mood, Jojo Rabbit slowly becomes discomfiting in ways that make you uneasy in your seat.
As Jojo Betzler, Roman Griffin Davis joins the slate of child actors taking on larger-than-life characters with as much brutality as the accomplished performers with whom they share the screen. Of course, Waititi has proven – time and again with his previous films – that he has an eye for insanely talented child actors written into roles that are lost and misunderstood. In his 2016 fare Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Waititi introduced us to Julian Dennison, who dosed his over-the-top performance with subtle realness. Similarly, Roman Griffin Davis shoulders the emotional journey of Jojo Rabbit with charisma and mirth.
Jojo Rabbit’s supporting cast are also perfectly fleshed out. As Jojo’s mother, Scarlett Johansson creates a resonant act that is an affecting reminder of what it means to hang on to the good of humanity, and Sam Rockwell – as the Hitler Youth camp captain – gives a brief, yet impressive performance that is unforgettable. But it is Thomasin Mckenzie who shines as the young Jewish girl, Elsa. She maintains her wonderful performance streak, following last year’s critically-acclaimed indie Leave No Trace.
The overall beauty of Jojo Rabbit is that its message is concise. Despite being a movie about Nazis, it doesn’t set out to make a larger political statement. It doesn’t have to. People easily turn a blind eye to the horrors of mankind; and at a time when fascism is making a well-pronounced comeback, Jojo Rabbit is a gentle reminder that love can prevail. It’s weaving of satire and hard-hitting drama is not always seamless, but Waititi is more interested in crafting a stylish comedy, and he does this very well. The film, with its subject matter, is no doubt going to be divisive. But it is hard to argue that this is Waititi at his peak, and he’s not letting up anytime soon.
*Editor’s Note: Jojo Rabbit premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival ’19 as part of the Special Presentations programme.