Taika Waititi is a unique talent in Hollywood. Not afraid to explore surreal, and absolutely barmy premises, he’s been a leading light of Polynesian cinema for a few years now, and he well and truly came into mainstream attention after directing Thor: Ragnarok, one of the MCU’s more entertaining films in its canon.
I’ll be honest, when I first heard this premise, it put me in mind of Mel Brooks’ The Producers; not because of a similar story, but a similar genesis, both being made by Jewish men punching up at their former oppressors, granted it was more groundbreaking when Brooks did it, because the war was still a fresh memory, and the thought of seeing anyone goose-stepping, satirically or otherwise, was enough to make audiences wince.
Even from this though, Taika ups the ante, he isn’t just making fun of Nazis, but is himself portraying their leader, Adolf Hitler, in a stroke of comedic genius, and what must feel so, so satisfying from his perspective, able to make the genocidal dictator as foolish as he pleases.
In the dying days of the Second World War, a young Hitler-idolising boy, JoJo (Roman Griffin Davis), is sent off to Nazi youth camp, accompanied by his imaginary friend, the fuhrer himself (Waititi), and his bumbling best friend Yorki (Archie Yates) where he accidentally injures himself, upon returning home, he finds that his mother is hiding a big secret in the walls…
One of the things I love about Taika’s work is how relentlessly, and bizarrely, hilarious there are. There are several moments in JoJo Rabbit which legitimately made me belly laugh.
It’s a measured, yet pitch-black, brand of humour. Taking every opportunity to make its Nazi subjects look like fools, especially whenever Waititi is on-screen as Hitler, he well and truly steals the show, just like he did in Ragnarok as Korg, but his role is just enough set into the background to not become overbearing, making his appearances seem all the more special.
Last week when discussing Motherless Brooklyn, I mentioned how directing yourself is a specialist skill, one TW seems to have in spades, he can never resist casting himself and his work, and he rarely fails to steal the show. He utilises several different varieties of shot to change the tone of the film with the story, ensuring that the tonal shifts are not too jarring, he builds up the base around a solid comedic base, before bringing out the big guns (quite literally) at the end, showing his aptitude for deftly shooting war-based action scenes alongside his considerable comedy chops.
Although it is utterly, utterly mad in every single way, it also has an unexpectedly large heart; JoJo’s relationship with his mother hints at something bigger, and more heartbreaking going on that we can’t see, Scarlett Johansson brings some brevity to her role, but gives subtle hints that there’s something else going on behind the facade.
It is not all surrealism and black humour though, as this is a story set at the heart of World War II, and comedy or not, and that brings with it its own tragedies, in a city constantly bombarded on all sides there will always be casualties, and somehow they hit harder when they’re surrounded by humour. It’s like a Trojan horse, it sneaks the harsh realities of war under our noses with irreverent humour, hiding the reality of the strong message beneath it.
Just when you think you’re comfortable with its tone and direction, JoJo Rabbit pulls the rug from under your feet in a way that completely turns the narrative on its head, and is the basis for my Trojan horse analogy earlier. It’s completely unexpected, and genuinely upsetting in equal measure.
The relationship between JoJo and the Jewish girl living in the wall of his house is a delicately crafted arc too. The outcome of where they might end up is foreseeable, but it’s the journey there that matters, one of overcoming fears and blind faith to see the connection of humanity, in completely unexpected ways, I didn’t expect a film sold on its humour to carry such a heavy conclusion, but I think if anything, the humour makes it more impactful.
In terms of performance, many of the cast here seem to be letting their hair down with their dafter scenes, as I said previously, Waititi lights up the screen whenever he appears, Sam Rockwell seems to take great delight in his bizarre character, ScarJo is possibly the most complex characters in the film, and the two child leads are comfortably some of the best I’ve seen, Roman Griffin Davis in particular carries the weight of the film admirably for his age, showing a wide range of emotions that some adults struggle to show.
To summarise, JoJo Rabbit is a very difficult film to sum up, simply because there isn’t anything else like it, something that mixes irreverent, surrealist humour, with a devastatingly emotional twist at its heart, it’s unique, hilarious, heartbreaking and absolutely brilliant.