TIFF 2019 Review: Taika Waititi blends satire and sweetness with delightful 'Jojo Rabbit'
Courtesy of Fox Searchlight
Not afraid to take a big swing for the fences, writer and director Taika Waiti pulls off the near impossible with his zany satire “Jojo Rabbit” - a Holocaust comedy with the energy of Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator” and the spirit and eccentricity of “Life is Beautiful.”
On some level, “Jojo Rabbit” has no reason to work; the subject matter doesn’t necessarily scream mass appeal, and the question of whether or not it’s too soon to parody Nazi’s will live in the back of your mind. But none of what Watiti is saying or doing comes across, at least to me, as offensive, considering the tone and style is set from the opening scene when a young boy named Jojo Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis in his first big screen role) has a pep talk with his imaginary friend who just so happens to be Adolf Hitler (Watiti happily sporting the iconic look complete with a cartoonish mustache and khaki uniform).
In the scene, Jojo is preparing to head off for an intense weekend of training that includes vigorous exercise relating to grenade warfare and underwater combat. The wannabe fascist wants nothing more than to be on the front-lines fighting for the motherland, but to do it, he’s got to learn how to be a killing machine at a youth training camp headed by a one-eyed officer named Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell). But when prompted to break the neck of a harmless, fluffy bunny, he chokes and gets the nickname Jojo Rabbit.
When an unexpected explosive incident lands the comrade in the hospital, his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johannson) implores him to take a break on the whole hate-the-Jews mentality. And it’s during a brief therapy session with his good pal Adolf that he discovers his mom’s lowly secret: she’s been keeping a young Jewish stowaway (you’ll be happy to see “Leave No Trace’s” wonderful Thomasin McKenzie) named Elsa in the house. This puts him in an awkward situation: Does he tell the Gestapo about his new infestation and risk having his mother killed? Or learn to live in harmony with the attic dweller?
He decides to spend time with Elsa, studying her methods and trying to construct a book of knowledge about the Jewish mentality and present it to his superiors. It’s one of the many fun and whimsical trails “Jojo Rabbit” goes down and Waititi shows no limitations for how far he can push the satirical elements. Some might gawk at the humanization of Nazis and the whole “Grand Budapest Hotel” style of presentation, but it’s clear the filmmaker - who turned “Thor Ragnarok” into one of the hippest superhero movies of the decade - isn’t trying to be mean spirited. In fact, a relationship that starts to develop between Elsa and Jojo is one of the sweetest incarnations on screen this year. Newcomer Roman Davis along with McKenzie show a real bond that reads well on screen, and the repertoire between himself and Waititi slapped a huge smile on my face.
What Waititi doesn’t explore is the consequences of certain actions, evident by a tragic incident that leaves a certain character struggling with their emotions, signaling “Jojo Rabbit” doesn’t stray too far away from the comedic side of its wacky screenplay. So while the shifting tones don’t suit the film well, and the ending is a little wobbly on the outside, it’s engaging to see the eyes of war told through comedic lens of a ten year old whose caricature of Hitler just so happens to eat unicorn for dinner and has some kind of weird Jedi mind power. Hail, indeed.
Fox Searchlight is set to release Jojo Rabbit in select theaters on October 18th and expanding nationwide the following weeks. The film was screened as a world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival.