Despite the darkness of this time period, there have been a decent amount of comedies set in World War II, with TV like Dad’s Army and movies like 1941. But despite the popularity of the Downfall memes, parodies and comedies are rare because everyone can agree that the genocide of the Nazi Party was no laughing matter. Taika Waititi of What We Do In The Shadows and Thor Ragnorok is one of the few comedic directors that has gained enough genuine credibility to be able to attempt to make a comedic movie set in WW2. JoJo Rabbit, despite winning the People’s Choice Award at TIFF, has proved to be somewhat divisive, unlike Waititi’s other films that got unanimous acclaim. Whilst I can see why, I personally quite liked it.
In Nazi Germany 1944, JoJo Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis) is a member of the Hitler Youth. Whilst he receives advice on how to be a proper Nazi from Adolf Hitler (Taika Waititi) as his imaginary friend, his world view is changed forever when he finds out that his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) is sheltering Elsa (Thomasin Mackenzie), a Jewish girl, in his house. Not only is he given the responsibility of keeping her safe to keep himself safe, but he is also confronted with a major challenge to his beliefs.
The first act of JoJo Rabbit will probably test audiences because of it’s reliance on one central joke: that being a Nazi is fun and that Nazis are unthreatening idiots. This joke is actually very effective, even if I do think that serious topics like genocide should have been incorporated to remind viewers of the threat the Nazi Party posed to humanity. But as the film continues, it becomes clear what it really is about. Some have complained that the film plays it too safe in regards to making fun of Nazism, but they miss the point that not only is it a good idea to present the Nazi’s in a manner that depowers them, but that the film is almost exclusively from a child’s viewpoint. JoJo’s personal arc is the central focus and it works because of the imaginary Hitler sequences. Waititi is not only hilarious as Hitler, but his script brilliantly chooses to do more than just point and laugh. He shows how a figure like Hitler could infect a child’s mind and influence him into strongly believing in stuff that’s evil and ridiculous.
This movie is obviously juggling a lot of different tones and he does manage to pull this tonal balance off for the most part. Scenes often jump backwards and forwards between comedic and dramatic and there is no awkward whiplash. When the film wants to be funny, it can be funny, but then there will be a moment of drama that is very powerful. There’s a scene at the start of the third act that comes out of nowhere yet is more heart-wrenching due to being brilliantly foreshadowed. But what makes the movie work all around is the final 10 minutes, which has a strong contender for the two most satisfying payoffs I have seen in a while.
That does not mean that JoJo Rabbit is perfect from a script standpoint. After the energetic opening 5 minutes, the film slows down considerably and never really gains a full sense of steam. The pacing is rather slow and what makes this more of an issue is that there is no big climax, Although I understand why this was not the case, I would have preferred a more bombastic third act. The biggest issue is with Sam Rockwell’s Captain Klenzedorf, one of the most important characters in the story. Rockwell does a great job as always, but his characterisation is vague and underdeveloped, enough to where the film accidentally seems to go against its anti-Nazi message in the process even though I am sure that was not the intention.
The acting is also great all around, especially from Roman Griffin Davis and Thomasin Mackenzie. Davis does what all good child actors do, he makes you forget that he’s inexperienced and matches the adult actors very well. Mackenzie has the more complicated challenge of being an antagonistic figure that is also the heart of the story and she does pull it off. She projects a lot of strength and fierceness, yet you never outright dislike her (though the violence she inflicts on JoJo is a bit too much at points, but that’s a script issue). The rest of the acting is also strong all around, with Scarlett Johansson once again giving one of her best performances and pulling off a good German accent.
Waititi’s direction has received Wes Anderson comparisons, but it does not feel like an Anderson movie at all. There’s a lot of movement in the camerawork and a lot of unique visual motifs that make this film very much its own. It also helps that the style is not so overdone that it gets in the way of the story. If this script was handed to a lesser filmmaker, then it would not have worked nearly so well.
Overall, JoJo Rabbit is somewhat flawed but overall is successful in its ambitions. This is another home run for Taika Waititi and proof that’s he’s one of the most consistently successful directors in the industry, as well as the kind of film that contains certain scenes which will be prime GIF material in the future.