RELEASED: October 18th 2019 / January 1st 2020
DISTRIBUTED BY: Fox Searchlight
DIRECTED BY: Taika Waititi
WRITTEN BY: Taika Waititi
PRODUCED BY: Taika Waititi, Carthew Neal & Chelsea Winstanley
MUSIC BY: Michael Giacchino
STARRING: Roman Griffin Davis, Thomasin McKenzie, Taika Waititi, Sam Rockwell, Rebel Wilson, Alfie Allen, Stephen Merchant & Scarlett Johansson
I know that technically this is a 2019 film. But since I’ve already written my ‘best of 2019’ post and this only came out in the United Kingdom on New Years Day, I’m dubbing it a 2020 film so I can kick off the year with a new film by one of my favourite directors.
The latest entry into Taika Waititi’s filmography, JoJo Rabbit follows a young boy called Jojo in Nazi Germany. Returning home from a Hitler Youth camp, Jojo finds his overwhelming drive to become a Nazi is sidetracked by the fact that he discovers his mother his hiding a young Jewish girl in their home. Also, a zany rendition of Hitler (played by Taika) occupies the role of JoJo’s imaginary best friend.
As with all things Taika puts out, from his movies to the most recent episode of The Mandalorian, this film is very enjoyable. Out of everything he’s done (behind the camera) I’d put it upper middle tier, which, given my great appreciation for his work is still very high praise. Better than Boy and Eagle vs Shark, but not quite on the same level as Hunt for the Wilderpeople, which is definitely his best in my opinion.
Once again, Taika manages to bestow his movie with his unique mix of zaniness, hilarity and somewhat depressing storytelling, as he examines life in Nazi Germany in a way that’s humorous enough to draw in general audiences, but poignant enough that it doesn’t just turn everything into one big joke. It’s a film that makes you think (something you might not expect if you’re unfamiliar with his back catalogue and instead just see him as a director of ‘one of those Marvel movies’), as it really dives into the mindset of anti-Nazi Germans during wartime, albeit in a comedic way. Even characters who are themselves Nazis in the movie occasionally have enough subtle nuance to indicate that they don’t all agree with what’s going on, which I think makes for some particularly splendid performances (and to counter, some who definitely do). Furthermore, some of the jokes serve a greater purpose, as not only do they entertain, but they also point out how certain people back in the 20th century could become enamoured (/brainwashed) with the ideas that Hitler and his ilk spouted.
The film is of course lead by Roman Griffin Davis (Nazi-wannabe Jojo) and Thomasin McKenzie (Jewish refugee Elsa), and both prove themselves to be very capable young actors. As the focal point of the movie, they get the strongest emotional beats and deliver them with seeming ease. Not all the young actors share their obvious talent (Archie Yates, for instance, while enjoyable, seems to not quite meet their admittedly high bar), but that is made up for by the supporting adult characters, who are there to really hammer home the more serious aspects of the film from a German perspective while also delivering some of the funniest moments.
Sam Rockwell stood out to me in particular, once again protruding raw charisma as he takes on the role Klenzendorf, the Nazi Captain in charge of the Hitler Youth camp Jojo attends, who often delivers some great comedy in the form of his clear disdain for his superiors and the way his life has turned out. He is teamed with the gloriously over-the-top Rebel Wilson, who gets in some great gags of her own, and the very capable Alfie Allen who doesn’t really have much to do here, but is also amusing when he gets his turn in the spotlight.
Similarly, Stephen Merchant makes a rather brief but very memorable appearance as a member of the Gestapo, which instantly stood out to me as one of the most amusing parts of the film. On top of bringing the laughs as a goofy take on Hitler, Taika continually proves in the scenes featuring these veteran actors that he has the balance between taking the mick out of Nazis and sympathising with those imperilled by their rule down to a tee. Something that with one joke too many could easily go down poorly.
And of course, let’s not forget Scarlett Johansson. I love the Marvel movies, but I have to say I am very glad that her character is now out of the picture. The two movies I’ve seen her star in since Avengers: Endgame, this and Marriage Story, have both highlighted how phenomenal a performer she can be when given the chance to really shine. Her character here is funny, endearing and at the core of most of the emotional beats in this movie, and she really elevates the film with the gravitas she brings to her scenes.
It’s through the combined efforts of Taika’s witty, thoughtful script and the excellent performances of the cast that JoJo Rabbit becomes a roller-coaster of emotion. From the most comedic scenes to the saddest, this film remains strong pretty much throughout its run-time, all the while being complemented by a choice selection of songs and original music that work especially well.
This is a premise that could have gone either way, but by treating the subject with respect and wit, Taika has yet again delivered a film that his vastly entertaining and truly thought-provoking, thus retaining the fact that he has yet to make a bad movie (behind the camera, that is. Let’s not ruin the moment by talking about Green Lantern).
All-in-all, I give JoJo Rabbit: