One of the most controversial films to come out this awards season is Taika Waititi’s World War II comedy, Jojo Rabbit. Set in Germany during the last years of the War and follows 10 year-old Jojo Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis), a Nazi fanatic whose imaginary friend is Adolf Hitler (Taika Waititi). He lives with his mum Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) who is anti-Nazi and Jojo discovers that his mum has hidden a Jewish girl called Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) in the attic. In true Waititi fashion, the film is full of dark humour and quirkiness galore and if you’re a fan of his previous films then you shouldn’t be disappointed. That being said, I understand the negative reaction this film received and wasn’t sure that I would find it funny myself but Waititi’s Hitler is portrayed as a spoilt and childish brat who is the butt of the joke throughout the film. We are laughing at Hitler rather than with him. I was surprised at how little Waititi is in the film and I think this is a smart choice. There is more focus on Jojo and his relationship with Elsa. Waititi’s direction and screenplay are as kooky as ever as he makes the best use of the film’s star power and big budget. It’s a film with numerous moving parts but a heavy focus on its two leads, Jojo and Elsa and does a brilliant job in showing their development.
Davis does a fantastic job as Jojo. Not only does he have brilliant comedic timing in his line delivery, but the confusion as Jojo questions his own extremist beliefs. When he first encounters Elsa, he is surprised at how normal she looks. Because of the lies spouted by Nazi officials, Jojo is convinced that she is a monster and is reluctant to trust her. He equally cannot let his mum or anyone else know that he is aware of her presence because he doesn’t want his mum to get in trouble. Immediately his fanatic morals are conflicted with personal interest and it is because of this that allows him to get to know Elsa as a person and begin to realise that he has been fed lies. There are many moments of true maturity in Jojo but he is 10 years old at the end of the day and the script reflects this. When repeating anti-Semitic remarks and insults that he has heard from Nazi adults, it doesn’t sound true because he doesn’t really understand what he is saying. Jojo begins to realise this himself as he develops feelings for Elsa and he finds it hard to justify his blinded hate when applying the mindset to an actual human. Jojo doesn’t understand why he feels the way he does but manages to do what he believes is right, even if it puts himself at risk.
Thomasin McKenzie is one of film’s highlights as Elsa, the Jewish girl hiding in Jojo’s attic. Elsa is a secretive and feisty character who lets Jojo go off on his tangents and enjoys making fun of him and his beliefs. Eventually, she is more open to Jojo when he begins writing letters pretending to be her fiancé in Paris. She realises that there is more to him than his hatred and that he can change. Her initial scene shows her in complete defensive mode both physically and mentally as she fights with Jojo and steals his knife. She drops her guard down and stays in her hiding place less and less. McKenzie portrays the loss and gain of freedom perfectly as Elsa doesn’t know how to react when she steps outside in the final scene. It seems strange watching her stand in the street as a free woman because we have become so used to seeing her hiding. Her scenes with Johansson demonstrate her range as we see her without the bravado. Her fears for the future and admiration for Rosie come across in a few short minutes which gives us a different perspective to how she acts around Jojo. McKenzie is definitely one to watch and has a promising career ahead of her.
Leading the supporting cast is Scarlett Johansson who is spectacular in what can only be described as a fantastic year for her career. Johansson caps off a phenomenal year in film with her take on Jojo’s mum, Rosie. Rosie is confident, bonkers and brilliantly outspoken. She doesn’t allow men to treat her how they want and spends her time empowering Jojo and allowing his imagination to run off with him. She disagrees with his Nazi fantasies and spends a lot of her screen time trying to capture the child in him by acting childlike herself. The character is also one of much complexity as she misses her husband as he has been missing in Italy for two years but keeps a strong front for Jojo’s sake. In one such dramatic scene, Rosie acts as both mother and father to distinguish how each one treats Jojo. With a simple smear of ash from the fireplace, Johansson becomes Jojo’s father. Her performance in Marriage Story is more defined but this shouldn’t detract from the brilliant work that she does here. Also in support is Waititi as Hitler which is the most controversial character for obvious reasons. His Hitler is clingy and desperate for attention and adoration. Seeing him in his final scenes as a pathetic man begging a child to show him some admiration is the nail in the coffin for his character and solidifies him as the punchline. Waititi is cartoonish and a complete buffoon in this role and at times is completely over the top to the point of ridicule but that’s what makes the balance work in the film. Waititi’s Hitler is created from the perspective of a child who has viewed him from the media. Because of this, Hitler’s personality is magnified to the max.
The film was enjoyable and I liked it a lot more than I thought I would. Particularly the performances from the leads as well as the characterisation of Jojo’s best friend Yorkie (Archie Yates) who is oblivious to what is going on and isn’t at all bothered about Jojo hiding Elsa. The film doesn’t pack the same punch that Waititi’s 2016 film, Hunt for the Wilderpeople did but it’s an entertaining watch nevertheless. I’m looking forward to seeing where Waititi takes his career next and hope that Sam Rockwell is in all of his future projects.
What did you think of Jojo Rabbit? Let me know in the comments below!