'Jojo Rabbit': Film Review | TIFF 2019

A Holocaust-focused comic crowd-pleaser that won't please all crowds.

Taika Waititi's comedy about a German boy during World War II, whose best friend is an imaginary Hitler, also stars Scarlett Johansson, Sam Rockwell, Rebel Wilson and Thomasin McKenzie.

Just as it was easy to like 1999 multiple Oscar winner Life Is Beautiful, it was even easier to dislike it, and the same holds true for Jojo Rabbit, a rollicking comedy about a young German boy during World War II who has his very own special edition of Adolf Hitler as his closest playtime companion. The brash way in which the film plays extreme Nazi views for laughs and then twists them for emotional dividends will once again divide the public, and it’s quite likely that younger viewers won’t be bothered by the film’s fast and loose attitude.

There is a raucous, audience-pleasing outrageousness to the way its writer-director, New Zealander Taika Waititi, goes about his business, beginning with his opening gambit of comparing the rise of Hitler to the outbreak of Beatlemania via his use of “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” Also most helpful at the outset are the resourceful comic skills of Sam Rockwell, as his Captain Klenzendorf indoctrinates his recruits in such basic Hitler Youth skills as book burning, grenade throwing and killing, starting with a rabbit.

But eager 10-year-old German Jojo Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis) isn’t too good with this physical stuff and ultimately suffers a facial injury that gets him cashiered and sent home. “Adolf” (played by director Waititi with exuberant comic energy) persists in his hate lessons there, hardly leaving the kid alone and trying with some urgency to shape him into a full-blown Nazi. (One puzzling detail has this personal Hitler repeatedly offering the boy cigarettes; Hitler hated smoking.)

With Jojo’s absorption of the ideology evidently complete, the boy is incensed to discover that his glamorous mother, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson), is hiding a young Jewish woman, Elsa Korr (Thomasin McKenzie of Leave No Trace), in a cramped storage area upstairs. It takes a while, but Elsa has an eventual salutary effect upon Jojo’s indoctrinated beliefs, teaching him a thing or three about Judaism and, just as important, opening him up to different ways of seeing than those of his pal Adolf. Still, there is a heavy price paid along the way due to Elsa’s presence at the house.

How to describe the brand of comedy served up by Waititi in this markedly odd film? It’s by turns rude, flippant and aggressive, sometimes laced with clever wordplay and not overly sentimental, either with the kids or at the end, despite the built-in potential for it. He manifestly loves to show off his cleverness, to pose, to grandstand. Still, as did Chaplin, he leaves plenty of room on this occasion for his young co-star to excel and fully remain at the center of the story.

Following in the path of any number of comic creators of the past, Waititi clearly wants to be funny and be loved, and he makes his bid for the latter in the final minutes as he signals Jojo’s conversions from the stranglehold of Nazis and hope for the future through the courage of Elsa. To those susceptible to this sort of last-minute string pulling, the wrap-up will satisfy. But it doesn’t begin to account for the sort of gullibility-turned-to-eagerness of millions of people to embrace the Nazi cause, and the cartoonishness of it, while amusing at the outset, doesn’t wear well as matters deepen and progress. To the contrary, it has a choreographed, rock 'n' roll ending.

Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentations)
Opens: Oct. 18 (Fox Searchlight)
Production: Fox Searchlight, TSG Entertainment, Piki Films, Defender Films
Cast: Roman Griffin Davis, Thomasin McKenzie, Taika Waititi, Rebel Wilson, Stephen Merchant, Alfie Allen, Sam Rockwell, Scarlett Johansson
Director-screenwriter: Taika Waititi
Producers: Carthew Neal, Taika Waititi
Executive producer: Kevan Van Thompson
Director of photography: Mihai Malaimare Jr.
Production designer: Ra Vincent
Costume designer: Mayes C. Rubeo
Editor: Tom Eagles
Music: Michael Giacchino
Casting: Des Hamilton

PG-13 rating; 108 minutes