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Review: Jojo Rabbit

October 26, 2019

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

Satire is a tricky thing to properly pull off, but New Zealand actor and filmmaker Taika Waititi mostly succeeds in his latest film Jojo Rabbit, an original and daring World War II satire that is equal parts funny and moving.

The film had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival last month where it went on to win the coveted People’s Choice Award. That it won is not a shock to anyone who was in the room for its premiere, where the film got a rapturous response from the audience and received a standing ovation.

The film is set in Germany in the dying days of the Second World War, and the main character is Jojo Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis), a young German nationalist and dedicated member of the Hitler Youth, whose imaginary friend is a cartoonish version of Adolf Hitler (Waititi). But when Jojo discovers that his beloved mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) is hiding a Jewish girl named Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) in their attic, his adherence to the poisonous, Jew-hating Nazi ideology starts to be challenged, as a heartwarming friendship forms between the two.

At first, Jojo Rabbit feels like it could go off the rails at any moment, but as the story starts to reveal itself and take some surprising dramatic turns, the film actually becomes quite emotionally involving in addition to being bitingly funny. The screenplay mercilessly mocks the stupidity of white supremacist thinking, while also delivering several moments that show the terrifying reality of the horrors being carried out by the Nazi regime. It should be offensive, and for some it might be, but Waititi’s irreverent approach is meant to take the piss out of Nazis, particularly Hitler himself, whom he often hilariously portrays as a buffonish, unhinged narcissist.

The film is carried by brilliant work from its young leads, with Davis deftly handling his portrayal of a difficult character in what is a true breakout role for the first time actor, and McKenzie complimenting him with a textured and moving performance that proves her remarkably understated work in last year’s Leave No Trace was no fluke. Johansson brings a great deal of heart to her role as Jojo’s mother, with an appealing earnestness and goofiness that we have never really seen from her before, and there are some lovely scenes between her and Davis.

They are backed up by an excellent supporting cast that also includes Sam Rockwell as an oddball Nazi, a role that has shades of his Oscar-winning turn as a racist cop finding redemption in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, even if his character here is written in broader strokes. Additionally, there are scene-stealing moments from Rebel Wilson as a dimwitted Nazi stalwart, and Stephen Merchant as a Gestapo officer who commands the film with a sequence that somehow manages to be both suspenseful and hilarious.

As I mentioned earlier, satire like this is a very tricky thing to pull off. Waititi is walking a very tricky tonal high-wire with Jojo Rabbit, and there are a few moments when the film doesn’t quite stick the landing. I enjoyed the film a lot, and reacted quite well to it in the moment during that sold-out TIFF screening where it was very easy to feed off the energy of the crowd. But after having some time away from it, I don’t know if the film necessarily always goes as deep as it seems to think it does, and there are a few moments where I actually wish it had gone even darker to really drive home its point. This might have helped the film leave even more of a lasting impact. The story is set in a horrifying period in human history, after all.

While amusing, Waititi’s jokey portrayal of Hitler also becomes a bit of a distraction at times, and can get in the way of the film’s emotional centre. There are a few moments where he shows up when I wish he had gotten out of the picture sooner, especially near the end, and with this imaginary version of Hitler remaining a goofy, comic figure throughout who never really progresses into being portrayed as truly evil, the depiction can end up feeling a bit too simplistic. But even if Waititi has made more of a one-off than an all time classic, Jojo Rabbit is still one of the more unique and enjoyable films to come along this year, playing like a cross between Life is Beautiful and Moonrise Kingdom.

The film serves as a sadly all too relevant exploration of how easy it is to get sucked into hate, especially for impressionable young people who feel like outcasts and are trying to find their place in the world. But it also shows that, in some cases, both change and forgiveness is possible. Waititi has crafted a film that is as subversive as it is sweet, and despite the subject matter, Jojo Rabbit is ultimately a feel good story that reaches a bittersweet conclusion.

Jojo Rabbit is now playing in select theatres in Toronto, and will be expanding in the coming weeks.

A version of this review was originally published during the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival.

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