12 June 2020
Jojo Rabbit is a brave attempt at a comedy considering its subject matter. No surprise that some thought making light of one of the biggest humanitarian atrocities was a step too far. The thing is, I think it was a little too timid in its depiction of the events in World War II. But with some deft humane touches, it manages to keep the interest going. All in all, it’s not a good comedy, but a very interesting film despite that.
Johannes (Roman Griffin Davis) is an eager 10-year-old whose imaginary friend is none other than the Führer himself (played by director Taika Waititi). On the day of his voluntary conscription to the Hitler Youth, he blows his face up in a hand grenade accident, which also renders him limp. His newly acquired imperfections, of couse, do not toe the Aryan superiority line, so he is demoted to the role of putting up propaganda posters. His mother, played by Scarlett Johansson who is far better here than she was in Marriage Story, is more than happy with this arrangement. Johannes soon finds out that his mother is also hiding a young Jewish woman (Thomasin McKenzie as Elsa) in the attic and is torn between his loyalty to his Fuhrer and his love for his mother, who will surely be in real danger if this comes out.
The thing is, after the first 15 minutes, the craziness is dialled down and it really sags in the middle as Johannes and Elsa begin a love/hate sibling dynamic — Johannes’s sister has passed away some time ago. Predictably, Johannes’s loyalty to his imaginary friend ebbs away as his friendship with Elsa improves. Although this relationship is the meat of the storyline, the real emotional strengths of the story come from the brief one-to-one scenes between Johannes and his mother. There is real tenderness and chemistry in these scenes, without being too corny. I really felt the emotional pull of a single mother trying to bring up a child in the worst possible scenario. I wish the film was more about that.
It’s not that comedy ends, but once the Wes Anderson-esque start gives way to a more sombre and decidedly slower middle, the comedy also slips away. But it is also quite timid — there is a tonne more here that could have been explored, such as Sam Rockwell’s amazing turn as the blind-in-one-eye about-to-come-out-of-the-closet alcoholic Captain Klenzendorf, and Johannes’s best friend, Yorki (Archie Yates, who steals every scene he’s in).
This is a really interesting film, very well made, gorgeous to look at with some great chemistry between the actors. But I feel it has missed the opportunity to really home in the comedy by poking the beast even more. It’s too timid to be a classic it should have been.