A tender coming-of-age story about a 10 year old boy learning to navigate a Nazi summer camp and fantasising about being best friends with a slapstick version of Adolf Hitler. How the hell did Taika Waititi pitch this, successfully?
The Kiwi auteur seems to have made the most unlikely (and, to some, offensive) film he could think up in direct response to his digestible Disney success with Marvel. Jojo Rabbit is the type of wacky Hitler comedy that seems impossible in a modern world of hyper-vigilance and over-corrected social wrongs, subverting all sensibility and turning Hitler (played with flamboyance by Waititi himself) into a cool dude who finishes sentences with “man”, has the charisma of a free-spirited 60’s surfer, and treats heils as high-fives.
At least that’s how 10 year Jojo Betzler (a brilliant Roman Griffin Davis) imagines Hitler to be. An made-up pal worth having, filling a massive void left by his real father, who is fighting in the war, and a recently deceased sister.
Wide-eyed Jojo lives with his mother (a razor sharp Scarlett Johansson) in the fictional German village of Falkenheim. The Second World War is almost over, and he’s damn excited about his first day at a high-school like Nazi youth camp, excitedly preparing, with this Hitler apparition by his side, to the effective soundtrack of “Komm, Gib Mir Deine Hand” – a German-language version of The Beatles’ “I Want To Hold Your Hand”. The sequence has just the right amount of subversive energy to shock you right into this world.
The youth camp’s stern (and hilarious) commander is captivating thanks to a charismatic performance by Sam Rockwell, overseeing all the males while counsellor Fräulein Rahm (Rebel Wilson) helps brainwash all the girls into believing pregnancy is the biggest assist in the struggle to win the war.
Waititi certainly has all the talent he needs to pull off something as wildly entertaining as the premise suggests. And yet there’s an odd sense of restraint as the movie devolves and plays with didacticism, taking away its edge for something more dramatic and predictable.
After all, there would have been hell to pay on Twitter if Waititi hadn’t segued his propulsive satire into a more sombre tale focusing on the softening relationship between Jojo and a young Jewish girl (played with incredible wit by Thomasin McKenzie), whom his mother had been hiding from the Nazis out of searing hatred for the Third Reich.
Exploring some emotional, serious territory in a Hitler satire makes sense, since a film needs a backbone that isn’t built on just lampooning pure hate. Although the Jojo Rabbit’s pacing as it moves away from hyper-exaggerated satire is unable to sustain the level of energy coursing through the first act.
While Waititi nails his goofball portrayal of the Führer, handing out stupid advice and getting over with the confident idiot profile, he overstays his welcome the deeper the film goes. Rockwell is perhaps the stand out as his nihilistic tone softens towards Jojo, when it was originally antagonistic in the face of the kid’s inability to kill a rabbit. Though MVP would have went to Johansson, who through her sass emerges as the real heart and soul of the story. It’s just a shame she isn’t on-screen long enough to help keep it all together.
THREE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Jojo Rabbit screened as part of the 55th annual Chicago International Film Festival. It will receive an Australian release on 26th December 2019.