Jojo Rabbit is the latest comedy drama from New Zealander, Taika Waititi, the writer-director behind What We Do in the Shadows, Hunt for the Wilderpeople and Thor: Ragnarok. The writer, director and actor has attained cult status with his comedic flair, delivering unconventional films that brim with creativity, campy charm and naive wonder. The same can be said for his latest gem, Jojo Rabbit, which garnered six Oscar nominations winning Best Adapted Screenplay.
Frequently compared with Life is Beautiful, Jojo Rabbit harnesses a counter-intuitive levity in its comedic treatment of Nazi Germany during World War II. The adaptation of Christine Leunens’s book ‘Caging Skies’ may be criticised for making light of and trivialising the inherent racism and complict evil of the Third Reich, yet Jojo Rabbit isn’t trying to be an overarching reinterpretation but rather a focused character study of the dismantling of a brainwashed innocent. Going way over the top with prejudice that borders on fairytale makes it easier to accept the comedy angle even if set against the darkest days in human history.
The war comedy drama also has similarities with Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, representing a boy scout’s naive world with a playful sense of humour. Taken from the perspective of a 10-year-old German boy, it’s clearly not aiming for docudrama authenticity as we uncover a quirky wool-over-the-eyes version of the war in its later stages. Filled with great character actors who truly shine with a candid and campy swagger, the real focus is on the boy and his suspicions around his unlikely friendship with a Jewish girl. Jojo finds himself entertaining a similar strain of innocent romance with playful curiousity bordering on a babysitter crush as we become accustomed to his bizarre world and buffoonish imaginary friend.
Casting a mostly comedic ensemble and taking on the tricky role of an imaginary Adolf Hitler himself, Waititi aims for madcap laughs with his incisive yet equally ridiculous take. His young lead, Roman Griffin Davis, is a real find… typically Aryan in appearance yet wide-eyed and likable enough not to be taken too seriously. Playing the runt of Hitler’s youth army, he becomes their kickball, adopting a nickname instead of their cutthroat ethos. He’s supported by the crazed Waititi, a flamboyant Sam Rockwell, the sweet yet enigmatic Thomasin McKenzie, a craning Stephen Merchant, a wacky Rebel Wilson and a clear-eyed Scarlett Johansson in an Oscar-nominated supporting role as his altruistic mother, Rosie. Archie Yates deserves a special mention as Jojo’s cute and utterly hilarious best friend, Yorki.
“The British say you’ve only got one ball.”
Through well-balanced performances from Davis, McKenzie and Johansson, Waititi’s able to carry the awkward comedy tone without derailing the emotional undercurrent. While funny, insightful and suspenseful, Jojo Rabbit is not without heartache, trying to capture the intricacies of the time without losing touch with the inordinate horror of mass genocide. Ranging from laugh-out-loud silly to raw and haunting emotional power, the film has it all, taking a childish perspective on a harrowingly inhumane period and infusing it with rich human themes and surprising depth.
While set in Nazi Germany, the relationships, prejudices and atrocities have a wider relevance, universal impact and far-reaching application. Described as an anti-hate satire, the implication is that Jojo Rabbit‘s quest is ultimately for human connection and commonground. The message is much edgier based on the film-maker’s choice to adapt ‘Caging Skies’ but underneath the Nazi symbology, historical significance, Nazi lampooning and dodgy accents is a story of overcoming your inherent prejudices, unlocking the shackles of groupthink and swimming against the tide of hate.
Under Waititi, it’s an inspired and wonderful blend of Life is Beautiful and Moonrise Kingdom taking the best elements from both and fusing them with his own comedic flair to create something fresh and new. Terrific performances, firm direction and brilliant writing make this a hilarious, haunting and razor-sharp piece of entertainment that will provoke thought and wow audiences.
The bottom line: Hilarious