The final days of World War II seem like an odd stomping ground for broad humour, I mean even Life Is Beautiful was crammed with whimsy and Mel Brooks’ legendary Springtime For Hitler was a spoof musical set within the movie The Producers. Into this potentially problematic area bounds playful Kiwi director Taika Waititi with the usual playful exuberance he’s used to tackle everything from flat sharing vampires, Norse Gods and self proclaimed 13 year old “gangstas” to bring us Jojo Rabbit, a funny and heartfelt story of a young child growing up as part of the Hitler Youth.
10 year Jojo, a slight and shy child, fantasizes about joining the German army, spouts Nazi rhetoric whenever he can and, like many withdrawn children his age, has an imaginary friend to help cope with the loneliness and name calling. However Jojo’s imaginary friend happens to be Aldolf Hitler, or should I say, a version of the mono testicled monster created in the mind of an adoring child, and as the young boy makes his way through life, Hitler is there to offer advice and pep talks if and when Jojo needs them. However, after an accident at Nazi camp that leaves him scarred and lame, Jojo ends up back home with his free spirited mother, Rose; but with all that time at home convalescing he manages to stumble onto a huge secret: Rose is sheltering Elza, a young Jewish girl, in her attic. The collision between this and his fascist beliefs (not to mention that the German army is essentially on fumes and a stones-throw from losing the war) cause Jojo to slowly start re-assessing his views causing his square moustached, imaginary friend to get meaner and jealous as time goes on. But can this blossoming friendship possibly hope to flourish in a world where loose lips and bullets are both equally as fatal as each other in a world where insanity and fear are rife.
A balancing act that not many other filmmakers would even consider, let alone actually write, direct and star in, Waititi hurls himself into a premise that if not handled with the utmost care could, at best, be hideously insensitive but somehow the crazy, beautiful son of a bitch has managed to pretty much pull it off.
Obviously the lion’s share of the credit goes to the writer/director, who wears his satirical influences on his sleeve (as well as a swastika arm band) by portraying the imagined form of the motherfuhrer himself despite – or more likely because of – the fact he’s of Polynesian/Jewish descent (Mel Brooks would be proud) but an insane amount of kudos must be hurled at young Roman Griffin Davis in the titular role of Jojo.
Possibly one of the most anxious looking children in cinema history, Davis has been shouldered with the unenviable task of eliciting our sympathies for a small child utterly ensnared with blind nationalism. Completely convinced that Jews are horned, hypnotising succubi and proudly display posters of Hitler on his wall like a modern day pop star (Hitler Baby One More Time, anyone?), the child actor manages to not only to turn in an impressive, textured performance that’s both heart-rending and funny but
He has more than capable help in a wonderfully perky performances by Scarlett Johansson and Sam Rockwell although you can’t help but feel that Alfie Allen and Rebel Wilson are somewhat under utilised despite their proment feature on the cast list but still manage to get their fair share of laughs despite some wonky “Cher-man” accents worthy of ‘Allo Allo.
Of course this is a movie concerning the Holocaust and there hasn’t been a Holocaust movie made yet that doesn’t emotionally gut punch you to your knees and Waititi displays remarkable subtlety, especially in a scene that comes out of nowhere involving a pair of memorable shoes that will emotionally tear you inside out, lacing the tragedy with humour and vice versa. He also knows when to crank up the suspense too with Jojo’s initial discovery of Elsa shot more like The Ring than The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas and a moment where Stephen Merchant’s spindly SS agent searches Jojo’s house somehow gut-gnawingly tense and uproariously funny.
If there’s a problem with the movie (and to be honest, “problem” is a ridiculous phrase to use on a movie that will leech tears from your eye holes, guaranteed) is that despite all of it’s triumphs, it’s curiously the least of Waititi’s movie’s to date. The growing pains of a young man who desperately lacks direction was handled better in both Boy and Hunt For The Wilderpeople and the juxtaposition of the director’s kooky humour with the genuine heart the story contains was nailed with more aplomb in What We Do In The Shadows and Thor: Ragnarok. It’s not a fatal flaw by any stretch of the imagination but it is noticable to fans of the director’s work – although to label this movie the “worst” of ANYone’s filmography simply goes to show how magnificent a helmer the New Zealander really is, even if the balancing act of wacky humour and one of the most notorious acts of inhumanity in human history is almost beyond even his talents… almost.
A sadly timely reminder of how dangerous and slippery a slope unchecked fanaticism can truly be (and the fact we STILL need to be reminded of this in 2020 is the most depressing aspect of all), Jojo Rabbit may be tonally a little rough around the edges but it’s power is still undeniable.