‘Definitely Not a Good Time to be a Nazi’ – Jojo Rabbit (BFI London Film Festival Review)

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Taika Waititi returns to our screens with his self-proclaimed anti-hate satire, Jojo Rabbit, a film that seeks to walk that treacherous tightrope of finding laughter and joy in the darkest chapter of human history. Comedy and the Second World War have mixed before, to varying results, but with a director with as keen and as distinct a voice as Waititi at the helm, one feels the man is well armed for taking on such an audacious task. Thankfully, his anti-hate satire just about manages to pull off the magic trick, thanks in no small way by its pint-sized 10 year-old protagonist.

The year is 1945. The War is near its end, and the Third Reich near its fall, but to 10 year old Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) is a time to be devoted to his Hitler Youth organisation as a young boy living in a small sleepy town in Germany. A Hitler fanatic who struggles to fit in, Jojo lives with his mother (Scarlett Johansson) and spends his time alone conversing with his imaginary version of Adolf (Waititi). But when Jojo discovers that his mother has been hiding a young Jewish girl (Thomasin McKenzie), he begins to suspect that his whole world view may just, in fact, be slightly askew.

Choosing to tell a wartime story through the perspective of a young German child who has been subject to the indoctrination laid down by the Hitler Youth programme is undoubtedly a fascinating outlook to align yourself with. It allows the film to take on a childlike view of the war, occasionally coming too close to sugar-coating the whole thing altogether, but at the same time allowing for a type of satire that pokes fun and lampoons all the many ridiculous facets of the fascist belief system upheld by the Reich.

Due to this approach, the film takes on a more Python-esque tone of humour than anything else in Waititi’s back catalogue. It’s all played to a very silly brand of humour, populated with performances that are all [playing the same joke, putting on silly voices in silly costumes. Nowhere is this more present than in Waititi himself as imaginary Adolf. His exaggerated performance is fairly one-note, but it is operating out of a child’s progressively more conflicted imagination so that’s understandable. He chooses to have his punches at Hitler by making a pathetic figure out of him, a simple yet effective approach. His chemistry with Davis as Jojo sparks many a moment of hilarity, with one final moment near the end standing as one of the best PG-13 permitted ‘F-Bombs’ in recent memory.

It is in the moments that the film doesn’t choose to focus on its protagonist’s world view that everything starts to unravel a little. Davis’s performance is very funny, sweet and affecting, and the film is always more interesting when viewing it through his eyes. As the film builds more to its overly sentimental final act, there feels like a loss of progression in Jojo, as the unraveling of his world and the confrontation that he begins to have with his belief ends up playing more second fiddle to beats for supporting characters seems to rob the film of a rich internal conflict that the film certainly seemed geared towards, but one that never quite comes to the forefront across its third act

Jojo Rabbit ends up being more concerned with finding a way of making a sweet feel-good film out of its wartime concept, with smatterings of slapstick buffoonery along the way, and that may be why some people do seem to think its more problematic than I believe it to be. It is capable of some quietly devastating emotional moments, thanks largely in part to Johansson’s presence in the film, but there’s something that never quite allows the film to stick. The veering of tone moving into the final third slightly leaves the film adrift, with Jojo and his own conflict getting a little lost in the shuffle. While it’s often very pleasant an experience to witness unfold, you’re left with the sense that there’s just not quite enough conviction in it to make the more emotional moments have much lasting resonance. It’s never as daring as you perhaps hope it would be, and while its sweetness proves to be a more gentle surprise in the moment, it’s surprisingly fleeting once you’re out of it.

While not quite the home run that fans of the man may have been hoping for, Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit is quite content to revel in its silliness, proving to be a sweeter affair than you may perhaps have been expecting. As a satire, it’s a little blunt, but there’s certainly fun to be had in Waititi’s Nazi Germany (which I’ll admit seems a bit of an oxymoron), there’s just the niggling sense that a little more complexity could have gone a long way.

Dir: Taika Waititi

Scr: Taika Waititi

Cast: Roman Griffin Davis, Thomasin McKenzie, Taika Waititi, Rebel Wilson, Stephen Merchant, Alfie Allen, Sam Rockwell, Scarlett Johansson

Prd: Carthew Neal, Taika Waititi, Chelsea Winstanley

DOP: Mihai Malamare Jr.

Music: Michael Giacchino

Country: USA

Year: 2019

Run time: 108 mins

Jojo Rabbit will be on general release in the UK from January 3rd 2020.

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