Chicago International Film Festival 2019: Jojo Rabbit

Taika Waititi’s latest and first film since his rise to mainstream prominence with 2017’s Thor: Ragnarok for Marvel will be sure to remain a talking point throughout the remainder of this year and into awards season. Jojo Rabbit, a film written and directed by Waititi, and adapted from the 2004 novel Caging Skies by Christine Leunens, has grand ambitions and swings for the fences at every pitch. While it doesn’t necessarily hit a home run with every swing, the film’s average climbs higher and higher as it goes along, ending in a place that is both crowd-pleasing and surprisingly moving.

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Jojo Rabbit. Dir. Taika Waititi.

The film stars a young boy of ten years old, who dreams of nothing more than to become a Nazi. This boy, played by Roman Griffin Davis and nicknamed Jojo, is instructed to kill a rabbit to display his stomach for murder. He is unable to do so and runs off. It is within this moment that we first see his struggle with morality and question his real commitment to being a Nazi. He is not in love with being a Nazi and enacting their objectively amoral code, but rather the idea of fitting within a group and believing in something. This is the theme at the core of the story, and it is this internal struggle that we see Davis wrestle with as the film goes along. Knowing that he is a first time actor makes his lead performance all the more astonishing and it can surely be remembered as one of the most notable child actor performances in recent memory.

The movie around Davis starts with Taika Waititi himself, who plays Jojo’s conscious in the physical form of a bumbling Adolf Hitler. The dynamic between the two of them is undeniably cute and hilarious. Waititi plays Hitler as you’ve never seen him before, in a very loving manner, that is until you hear him casually sound off on some horrific ideology and are reminded of the man he is portraying. This is the tone that Waititi laces throughout the film, instilling comedy and silliness to diminish yet illuminate the atrocities that the Nazis commit so nonchalantly. Another character who carries this torch is Captain Klenzendorf, played boisterously by Sam Rockwell. Waititi uses his comedic timing wonderfully and we get to see Rockwell appearing to have a ton of fun chewing up the scenery. Another great comedic performance actually comes from that of Archie Yates, another first time performer who plays Jojo’s best friend Yorki. The kid is actually a highlight of the film and provides some of its funniest moments. He appears to be a natural and is someone we should take note of as he is sure to be here to stay.

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Jojo Rabbit. Dir. Taika Waititi.

Moving away from the film’s comedic sensibilities and into its more dramatic and emotional craft we arrive at the performances of Scarlett Johansson and Thomasin McKenzie. Johansson, who plays Jojo’s mother, is another highlight. She grounds the film with her warm and genuinely soothing presence. Whereas Hitler acts as the exuberant devil on Jojo’s shoulder, Johansson acts as the angel by which Jojo can count on to help maintain his humanity. It is a very welcoming sight to see Johansson giving a performance like this in a film of this nature after years held behind blockbuster fare. Like with Johansson, the arrival of McKenzie’s character is where the film begins to take off and really becomes something more than was originally foreseen. It is better left unsaid where the story goes with her character, but her relationship with Jojo is fundamental to the movie’s success and becomes the backing for his growth as a character. With this, remarkably, seemingly all the characters in this story appear to exhibit growth from where we first meet them to where it ends up. The weight of this story sneaks up on the viewer during its second act, and by the third act the emotional payoff feels earned and is tremendously rewarding.

With Jojo Rabbit, Taika Waititi has crafted a movie that feels very unique in its presentation. At times it can feel like a Wes Andersen film, but Waititi’s comedic flair is a lot more straightforward and accessible. While Waititi’s comedy is a strength of the film, at times it is also its greatest weakness and may alienate some audiences altogether. The humor doesn’t land as much as it did for Waititi in Ragnarok, and the relentlessness with which he deploys it can be grating at times. Especially with the subject matter at hand, it’s easy to see why the fluffy, light tone maintained throughout the majority of the film would be a point of contention for people. However, should you allow yourself to catch Taika’s wave and let him take you out to sea, you will find this story has much more heart and humanity than meets the eye. As Jojo slowly uncovers truths about himself and the dark world which has influenced him, we the audience uncover deeper truths about the message Taika has laid out for us. That message is one we can all relate to and should resonate deeply within the context of our world today.

8/10

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