Film review: ‘JOJO RABBIT’ by Nick Gardener from ‘Built For Speed’

New Zealand director Taika Waititi has been one of the more surprising Hollywood success stories. His idiosyncratically Kiwi comedies have leapt over cultural barriers to gain the attention of major Hollywood players and earn him A-list status. Some, like myself, may not have entirely warmed to his droll, piss-taking style of humour although the fact that it infiltrated the vast monolithic Marvel empire in Thor: Ragnarök was a pleasing near-miracle. In his latest film, Jojo Rabbit, that filmmaking approach at first seems painfully out of place given that this movie is set in Nazi Germany amid the fall of Berlin and the persecution of Jewish people. Waititi shows, however, what a clever filmmaker he is as he uses his familiar approach to convey the absurdity of Nazi propaganda and manipulation and ultimately create one of the most emotionally affecting films of the year.

The Jojo of the title is a cherubic 10-year-old boy (Roman Griffin-Davis) who is desperate to become part of the Hitler youth in 1945 Berlin. He’s obsessed with Hitler and even sees him as a quirky imaginary friend who advises him on how to ingratiate himself to the Hitler Youth commanders. Eagerly swallowing their vile anti-Semitic ravings, Jojo’s beliefs are tested when he discovers that his resistance-sympathising mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) has allowed a Jewish girl, Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) to hide in their attic.

While Waititi’s style of comedy might have been used purely for laughs in other films, here it potently captures the confusion and innocence of an easily-influenced young mind. In that respect the film recalls Mel Brooks comedy classic, The Producers and its outrageous play within a film, Springtime for Hitler which showed how the masses could be seduced by a charismatic buffoon. Accordingly, Waititi depicts the Hitler youth as a bunch of bumbling boy scouts, unwisely allowed to use live weapons and commanded by arrogant and cowardly idiots.    Eventually, for Jo Jo reality must assert itself and the revelation of what his world has become and the impact for Elsa, on whom he has developed a crush, is devastating. Waititi’s deft ability to switch from surreal comedy to heart-wrenching drama is remarkable, even if some of the comic interludes jar.

Waititi’s films are often distinguished by their memorable characters and here the ensemble is terrific. Young Roman Griffin-Davis displays a maturity and skill well beyond his years, making Jojo at once a disturbing propaganda vessel and touchingly naïve and good-hearted child. New Zealand actor Thomas McKenzie is also terrific as Elsa conveying a mix of fear, bitterness and affection for the deluded Jojo. There’s fine support from a wonderfully forthright Scarlett Johansson, an hilariously deadpan Archie Yates as Jojo’s best mate Yorki and an amusingly silly but ultimately moving performance from Sam Rockwell as Jojo’s commandant.

Jojo Rabbit requires a substantial leap of faith to go from its crazed comedy to its serious drama but those prepared to open themselves to this film will find a powerfully emotional story of humanity emerging from the rubble of hate.

Nick’s rating: ****1/2

Genre: Comedy/ historical drama/ War.

Classification: M.

Director(s): Taika Waititi.

Release date: 26th Dec 2019.

Running time: 108 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast.

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