The last time we saw director Taika Waititi he was changing the landscape of the Marvel Cinematic Universe with Thor: Ragnarok, a film many regard as the best Thor film and a real standout of the entire MCU. How does Waititi use his new found cache? By making Jojo Rabbit, a movie about a Nazi youth who has an imaginary friend who just happens to be Adolf Hitler (who is played by Waititi himself). Though not conventional in any sense, Jojo Rabbit is a bold new entry for Waititi and shows his growth as a director, even if the movie isn’t a complete homerun.
Little Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) is ten years old and obsessed with Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party. So much so that he is heading to his first day of Nazi youth training camp, a camp where they burn books, shoot guns, and recognize the Jews as monstrous, troll-like creatures with tails, horns, and mind-reading abilities. One day, Jojo discovers that his mother (Scarlett Johannson), a supportive, fun mother who doesn’t support the Nazi way of life but lets her son love the Nazi’s anyway, is hiding a Jewish girl (Thomasin McKenzie) in their home, causing Jojo’s life to spin upside down, all while the war looms in the background.
Before Thor: Ragnarok, Waititi was known for smaller independent comedies with lesser budgets, tighter stories, and more creative control like Eagle vs Shark, What We Do in the Shadows and Hunt for the Wilderpeople. Thor: Ragnarok showed that Waititi could handle bigger budgets and work within a studio. Jojo Rabbit feels like a culmination of Waititi’s career so far. It had a bigger budget than his first films, yet he had the creative freedom to really do what he wanted, which is how he got a satire featuring Nazi’s made, something only the great Mel Brooks has successfully pulled off before. The result of this film mostly works. Waititi brings a lot of great humor here, especially in the first act of the film, in which we see Jojo at his Nazi training camp as he learns the harshness and brutality of the Nazi party under the tutelage of Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell). We also meet Jojo’s best friend, Yorki (Archie Yates), at the camp, a chunky boy donning thick glasses who might the scene-stealer of the movie.
As the film progresses, however, the laughs get quieter, as Waititi begins to show us the horrors of the war in Germany and how it is effecting Jojo and his life. There are some really dark and emotional moments in the third act that are a bit jarring, but really represent Jojo’s understanding of the things happening around him and how his world was once bright and fun but turns dark and sad quickly. Though I did enjoy the lighter moments at the beginning of the film, the amount of emotion and tragedy in the film really adds another level to, though it is slightly unbalanced.
Waititi’s biggest opportunity is balancing all the subplots and all the characters. There is a lot happening in this movie and a lot of characters that Waititi juggles with and a couple of the balls fell while he was juggling. Some of the characters don’t have enough depth and their actions are confusing or weird and some of the subplots come in and out as they choose. I really wish this movie only focused on Jojo’s relationship with the Jewish girl while struggling with his love for the Nazi’s and his mother. Everything else beyond that didn’t click for me.
Like his other films, Waititi gets exceptional performances from his entire cast. Davis is adorable and a talented young star. Johannson could earn an Oscar nomination for her performance here, as she plays a woman who is always staying positive and keeping her son happy, even in the face of a possible bomb raid. Thomasin Mackenzie, who was sensational in last year’s Leave No Trace, shows her range by giving a balanced comedic and tragic performance. Her and Davis have great chemistry. Rockwell is wonderful as always and even Waititi himself is great as imaginary Hitler.
Anybody going into Jojo Rabbit and looking for The Producers is going in wrong as nobody could do what Mel Brooks did as a writer and filmmaker. But even with Jojo Rabbit not being a perfect film, thinking that movies like this could be made by filmmakers like Waititi is exciting for the future of film. This is a daring, ambitious film and while Waititi has still has some work to do in terms of tonal and character balance, it does solidify him as an exciting, bold director willing to make unique films.
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