REVIEW BY LL SOARES
Director Taika Waititi is definitely having a moment. I think I first heard of him when his first feature came out, EAGLE VS. SHARK (2007), but what made that movie stick out for me was that it starred Jemaine Clement of the comedy series FLIGHT OF THE CONCHORDS. Clement, along with Bret McKenzie, played New Zealand musicians trying to find their place in New York on FLIGHT, which was on HBO from 2007 – 2009. Waititi, a fellow New Zealander, even directed a few episodes of FLIGHT OF THE CONCHORDS. Waititi’s other films include WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS (2014), a hilarious documentary-style film about vampires that was spun off into a series for FX, HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE (2016), and the movie that made him a household name, THOR: RAGNAROK (2017).
JOJO RABBIT is his first film after RAGNAROK, and he goes from a Marvel blockbuster to a smaller, more personal film (like the ones that made up most of his career so far). Waititi also wrote the screenplay for JOJO, based on the novel “Caging Skies” by Christine Leunens. I have to admit, I wasn’t in a hurry to see it when it first came out. I’m not sure why. Maybe the idea of a comedy about a little boy whose imaginary friend is a silly version of Adolf Hitler put me off. It sounded like something similar to Roberto Benigni’s LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL (1997), a comedy of sorts about a father and son in the middle of the Holocaust, that was controversial at the time (despite that, Benigni won an Oscar for Best Actor), that I still have mixed feelings about. I guess I was put off by the chance that JOJO RABBIT could be a “cutesy” take on similar material. But some friends who really liked this movie, and that fact that it has been nominated for six Oscars, convinced me to give it a chance.
Finally seeing JOJO RABBIT, I feel less ambiguous about it. It’s definitely a better film than LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL, and it works at what it’s going for. A lot of this has to do with the performances. Newcomer Roman Griffin Davis is pretty terrific as Jojo, a young, awkward boy in Hitler’s Germany. His performance works, because he’s truly earnest in the role. Growing up in German society at the time, it makes sense that Hitler would be Jojo’s hero, mostly since he wants so desperately to belong somewhere.
JoJo’s is raised by his mother, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson, currently the Black Widow in the Marvel movies, do I really need to say more?), while his father has been away for awhile (JoJo is told he is a solider in the war). Johansson does a great job as Rosie, because she feels like a well-rounded heroine. In another movie, she would have been more subdued and overly serious, but here she has something of a mischievous streak in her, that often rises to the surface. She does not seem particularly cowed by the hostile environment around her, and she seems like she would be a fun mom, despite the world she’s trapped in.
JoJo’s best friend is another awkward boy, the overweight and kind Yorki (Archie Yates), and when the movie opens, JoJo and Yorki are going off to a kind of summer camp for Hitler Youth, led by Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell, also in MOON, 2009 and THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI, 2017), an officer who was demoted for some blunders and who is now forced to get children ready to become the soldiers of tomorrow. Klenzendorf clearly resents that his career has taken this particular turn, and doesn’t always take his job seriously. His second-in-command, Fraulein Rahm (Rebel Wilson, also in PITCH PERFECT, 2012, and currently in CATS) is much more gung-ho about it all.
And then we have Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie, also in LEAVE NO TRACE, 2018, and THE KING, 2019), an teenage Jewish girl who is hiding in JoJo’s house (his mother is protecting her from the Nazis). JoJo stumbles upon her by accident, and is first afraid of her (especially after all the anti-Semitic bullshit that’s been drilled into him), and contemplates turning her in to the authorities, but slowly, they becomes friends, and he even starts to falls in love with her.
Other standout characters include Stephen Merchant (who was a co-creator with Ricky Gervais of the original British version of THE OFFICE, as well as acting in it. He’s also wrote and directed the wrestling comedy FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY, 2019) as Deertz, the very creepy head of the secret police, who come snooping around JoJo’s house; and director Waititi, of course, as JoJo’s imaginary friend, Hitler, who is played broadly as a buffoon who alternates between being JoJo’s friend, and a childish bully who tries to get him to tote the party line. He’s actually completely child-like, which makes sense, since he’s the creation of a child.
The real heart of the film is the relationship between JoJo and Elsa, and how she gets him to realize that what’s right and wrong isn’t always what the people in power tell us it is. The fact that there is humor along the way just adds to the humanity of it all.
JOJO RABBIT was a much better film than I was expecting, and by the end it had won me over. It’s a strong film, and I left the theater feeling glad that I had given it a chance and finally seen it. You should see it, too.
I give JOJO RABBIT a score of four knives.
© Copyright 2020 by LL Soares
LL Soares gives JOJO RABBIT ~ 4 knives.