Taika Waititi’s latest outing as writer/director, Jojo Rabbit follows a young boy in Nazi Germany, a member of the Hitler Youth with Hitler as an imaginary best friend, whose life turns upside down as the war draws to its conclusion.
Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) is a devoted member of the Hitler Youth and he joyfully runs round their small town, giving the Nazi salute with a childish enthusiasm and dreams of becoming part of Hitler’s personal army. After an accident at a weekend camp leaves him unable to take part in the activities, he discovers that his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) has been hiding a Jewish girl named Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) in their attic, his firmly held beliefs. To complicate matters, he also has to deal with his imaginary best friend Hitler (Taika Waititi).
Jojo Rabbit does have incredible performances from it’s cast, especially the young cast which is clearly one of Waititi’s ability to get such strong performances from child actors – see Hunt for the Wilderpeople or Boy for further examples. As the impressionable Jojo, Davis brings an enchanting innocence to the role, which is diametrically opposed to the world he participates in – gleefully burning books at the Hitler Youth camp but trying to save a rabbit some older boys order him to kill.
His inner conflict between the propaganda-inspired fear of Elsa and Jewish people, and his curiosity about the girl living in his attic is at the heart of the film, as he begins to slowly but surely question the attitudes drilled into him. Thomasin McKenzie as Elsa, however, is the standout performance in this film, blending fear and anger into a tender portrayal of a young woman living in fear but with a streak of determination that both fascinates and terrifies Jojo.
Much of the discussion around this film has been regarding to Waititi’s portrayal of Hitler as a comedic character, who is a constant presence in Jojo’s head, providing him with helpful advice to deal with bullies, or boasting about his dinner of unicorn. It is a character that is a child’s version of Hitler, in the realms of fantasy but still very much real. This is one of the more controversial elements of the film but throughout it never seems to be inoffensive, or bitingly satirical enough, to warrant it’s place in the narrative.
As Jojo’s mother Rosie, Johansson is frustratingly, and somewhat gratingly, kooky – the depiction of a woman trying to single-handedly raise her young son, stand up for her beliefs and still maintain some light-heartedly is a role that should be able to capture an audience and make them care about the character. However, this determination to be “odd” while also transitioning into moments of serious conversation without much weight behind either simply renders her character annoying – and any emotional beats surrounding her simply fall flat.
What’s disappointing is that Waititi has made some absolutely devasting and warm-hearted films, and it is well within his skillset, but Jojo Rabbit simply does not command those same elements as naturally.