Taika Waititi presents a child’s eye view of wartime atrocities in the ambitious comedy / drama.
Do you remember being 10 years old and falling in love for the first time? Or, if you’ve just made a blockbuster superhero movie, what is the logical next step in your career?
Filmmaker Taika Waititi goes back to what he knows, namely, wry comedies sprinkled with dramatic turning points for young characters. In Eagle vs. Shark (2007), he followed the courtship between two young adults (Loren Horsley and Jemaine Clement) who often engaged in juvenile behavior. In Boy (2010), he followed the titular kid who attempts to bond with his long-absent father. In Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016), he followed a runaway youngster who has not bonded with his foster father.
In Jojo Rabbit, adapted by Waititi from Caging Skies, a novel by Christine Leunens, the filmmaker follows Jojo Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis), a 10-year-old boy whose family has been torn apart by the rise of Hitler. Jojo’s loving mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) remains with him in Germany. She is devoted and loving, and will not hold back from defending her precious child against all enemies, even if he has become a lover of Hitler.
As the opening scene demonstrates, young Jojo has fallen in love for the first time. He questions his mother and is starting to rebel, so his sole object of affection is Adolph Hitler (Taika Waititi), or, rather, his perception of what Hitler must be like, in the absence of his own father (or any other influential adult male) from the scene.
Of course, Waititi also has a sense of dry humor that has been best showcased in his collaborations with Jemaine Clement (especially in What We Do in the Shadows), and so it’s no wonder that his movie begins with a cracked scene between Jojo and how he wishes his idol might behave in private. This, along with other early scenes, where Sam Rockwell and Rebel Wilson at a training camp for Hitler Youth, set up Jojo Rabbit to be an absurdist comedy.
It is that, but Waititi’s humor is more apt to make one smile at its clever take on life and the people who wander through it without ever realizing how ridiculous they behave, rather than laugh out loud at a basic pratfall or stupid gesture. I often smiled and sometimes laughed out loud at the things people say and/or do in the film, though its occasional earnestness can become overwrought.
After the opening set-up concludes, Jojo soon discovers a Jewish girl (portrayed, very finely, by Thomasin McKenzie) hiding in the attic. That in itself draws quick mental comparisons to The Diary of Anne Frank, and weighs upon the new film with dramatic ripples that are impossible to dismiss entirely. Still, the story moves forward with alacrity to explore the relationships that develop between people who live in a constant state of fear.
The setting and the characters make Jojo Rabbit the most ambitious and challenging film yet from Taikaka Waititi. Much pleasure can be derived therefrom, and I will readily admit that the selection of a certain song at a certain point, after much has happened, brought me to tears.
As much as anything, this is a story and a film that will remind viewers of other horrible tragedies that have struck huge swathes of mankind, while also offering the perhaps overly-optimistic thought that things will get better. Maybe so, Jojo, maybe so.
The film enjoyed its U.S. premiere at Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas. It opens in select Dallas theaters on Friday, November 1.