After tackling Wilderpeople hunts, squabbling vampires and family tussles in Asgard, writer/director Taika Waititi returns with a bold aim of adapting Christine Leunens’ book Caging Skies. Getting satire right is a difficult enough task as it is, let alone casting your net over one of the most brutal and oppressive eras in human history. And while Waititi has all the best intentions and means well with his “anti-hate” picture, Jojo Rabbit is more good than great, and has a fair few irritating flaws that keep it grounded where it could soar.
The plot centres on 10-year old Johannes “Jojo” Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis), an enthusiastic member of the Hitler youth, with high goals to advance to the top, while his more benevolent mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) just wants the fighting to end and her boy to be allowed to be a kid again. Soon though, Jojo’s loyalties are tested, when he discovers young Jewish teenage girl Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), who is secretly being hidden and protected by his mother in their home.
Jojo Rabbit has enjoyed a wave of awards season recognition and garnered a strong audience following in the process, and while it is awesome to see such stories able to not only be told but thrive, Waititi’s approach is one that offers moments of greatness but some disappointing aspects also. The heart beneath his screenplay unmistakably beats and rises to the surface in some powerful moments, a town square scene for instance is crushingly poignant. Additionally Jojo’s developing connection to Elsa is gratifying and sweet to see play out. The problem is that the film does struggle to balance some rather extreme polar opposite tonal shifts, as it jumps from one side of the spectrum to the next. Waititi himself joyously hams it up, playing an imaginary version of Hitler who acts as Jojo’s friend/mentor and while some sequences are funny, it is the same kind of narrative device deployed to similarly distractingly use in Phyllida Lloyd’s The Iron Lady (with its use of Denis Thatcher).
The film just cannot seem to strike the right balance and it means that the hefty emotional or horrific beats are sometimes not built up to or followed by cartoonish goofiness. Additionally, some may have a problem with the Allo Allo-esque presentation of Nazism and some of the gags are painted in very broad brush strokes, there is even a joke about Hitler’s one ball. The script does have moments of inspiration, including some fun visual gags but is not particularly laugh out loud funny in the way What We Do In The Shadows was nor is it as cleverly balanced. And Michael Giacchino’s functional but largely unnoticed score and the selection of music choices deployed onscreen only add to the film’s juggling of tone.
That being said, Jojo Rabbit does manage to entertain thanks to moments of childlike wonder and innocence, largely down to its splendid cast. This is a star making turn for Roman Griffin Davis, who is completely wonderful, and as Jojo, this young lad deploys one hell of a screen presence. While Thomasin McKenzie pairs up brilliantly onscreen with him as Elsa, a defiant, strong and yet emotionally drained character that she plays excellently. The adult cast likewise turn in strong performances, with a hopeful Johansson standing out as Rosie, alongside the always reliable Sam Rockwell as a sexually closeted German Captain (one of the films most subtle beats). While young Archie Yates as Jojo’s best friend Yorki is one of the film’s hidden treasures and steals the screen whenever he graces it.
Jojo Rabbit’s goals are noble and well meaning and while it does not pull it off entirely, the cast deliver top drawer performances and the film has enough about it that you can see what Waititi is trying to accomplish. It’s no Death of Stalin but neither is it a real life answer to ‘Springtime for Hitler’.