Jojo Rabbit has Taika Waititi’s film making magic sprinkled all over it

Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit has been the talk of the town in the film industry press since its world premiere at the Toronto International Film festival in September – where it also won the People’s Choice Award. Rave reviews and celebrity endorsements have followed, and now it’s time for us Kiwis to see the latest masterpiece from one of New Zealand’s most successful creative exports.

Set in Germany near the end of WWII, Jojo ‘Rabbit’ Betzler becomes so-called during his time at a Hitler Youth camp when he refuses to kill a rabbit. Jojo is a dedicated Nazi, so much so that even his childhood imaginary friend is Hitler himself, masterfully played by Taika Waititi. He lives with his loving and dedicated mother Rosie, played by Scarlett Johansson, and his father is fighting in the war. 

Jojo finds a mentor in Nazi Captain Klenzendorf, played by the brilliant Sam Rockwell. Klenzendorf is an unlikely hero to look up to. On the surface, he’s a dismissive, hard-faced, liquor sloshing army man. But, as the story progresses he evolves to surprise both Jojo and us in every scene. Jojo’s enthusiasm for his Nazi fanaticism begins to flounder as his eyes are opened to the horrors of what the war means for everyday people and what its consequences really are.

Taika Waititi shows once again why he’s become a darling of Hollywood. His skills both in front of and behind the camera make this film truly individual and his trademark comedy style and sensitivity in storytelling are firmly stamped. Waititi’s screenplay cleverly puts us in a child’s world whilst weaving within it some more cutting yet still simplistic and haunting lines. He’s also contrasted the darkness of war alongside a jaunty nostalgia, brightly coloured atmosphere and recognisable and uplifting soundtrack. 

Waititi’s pop-ups as the happy Hitler imaginary friend are delightfully silly but he also cleverly allows the odd bit of unsettling rage to sneak in at times too. As has been shown historically, one way to cope with the atrocities the Fuehrer perpetrated is by presenting this frightening dictator in a digestible form of mockery. This comedic Hitler is a triumph but even with this take, it still has a confronting and uncomfortable effect seeing that uniform, swastikas and moustache on-screen. 

Roman Griffin Davis is absolutely faultless as lead Jojo. He brings a comical and poignant depth to the role alongside his instant likability. The part demands a lot from a young actor yet he seems to breeze through his performance with wit, charm and emotional heft. Jojo’s best friend Yorki, played by Archie Yates, is equally adorable and hilarious and allows for some wonderful exchanges. Yates is an instant star. Thomasin McKenzie displays great maturity in her performance as a young Jewish girl hiding from the Nazis. She brings authenticity and grounding to the story that helps to depict the gravity of what so many faced during WWII.

The film packs its fair share of star power. Johansson and Rockwell shine in their supporting roles with both subtilty and character development. In Rockwell’s case, he shows a spectrum of layers to his performance, that while it is mostly bubbling under the surface, really drew me in. However, other characters are seemingly more for comedic effect only, so the performances presented by Rebel Wilson and Stephen Merchant are far more one dimensional and punchline orientated but not unwelcome. 

Jojo Rabbit succeeds in being a rather gentle film set within a horrendous environment that highlights both the absurdity and tragedy of war. Though it does inevitably tug on the heartstrings, the film’s mission is not to make you sad but optimistic for the human race, our differences, our hardships and our future. At its heart, it’s sweet and kind and holds within it an innocence of childhood that’s so wonderfully communicated in the dialogue and the often only side-eye glance at the violence and hatred of war. A comedy, a war film, a love story, Jojo Rabbit has Taika Waititi’s film making magic sprinkled all over it.

Will you cry? Probably. Will you laugh? Inevitably. Will you love it? Most definitely. Jojo Rabbit is out in cinemas from today.

Reviewed by Ingrid Grenar.