Director: Taika Watiti
Writer: Taika Watiti
Starring: Roman Griffin Davis, Thomasin McKenzie, Taika Watiti
Genre: comedy / drama
Johannes ‘Jojo’ Betzler (Griffin Davis) is a lonely German boy that desperately wants to join the war effort for his beloved country (who are currently on the verge of losing) but discovers that his mother is hiding a Jewish girl (McKenzie) in their attic. Aided only by his imaginary friend – Adolf Hitler (Watiti) – as Jojo gets to know the girl he must confront his blind nationalism and all of his beliefs.
Kiwi filmmaker Taika Watiti has already proved himself able to make (and also star in) films that effectively combine big laughs with big heart, and it appears that he has had to have been elevated into the high echelons of being the director of an MCU film to be able to finally make what is a passion project of his. It is admittedly easy to see why studios may be slightly nervous to fund a film like Jojo Rabbit (a comedy about Nazi’s and the Hitler youth is perhaps not the most lucrative concept on paper), but I think we should all be glad that they finally did, as Watiti is quite possibly one of the few current auteurs that would be able to make such a concept work. Though Jojo Rabbit is certainly not perfect, on the whole Watiti successfully balances the humour with the heart very successfully to produce a very engaging (if quite predictable) film.
At the centre of the whole narrative is an exceptional performance from youngster Roman Griffin Davis (in his first role) as the film’s protagonist. It should not be underestimated just how crucial this is, as without such a great performance there is no way that Jojo Rabbit would work anywhere near as well as it does. Having the director also star alongside him in many of the scenes may well help, and credit should also be given to Watiti for his directing of his extremely young leading actor, but Griffin Davis’ incredible performance gives us a protagonist that we care about, and we genuinely believe in his character’s narrative arc, which is of course essential for the narrative of Jojo Rabbit to work, as the whole story is essentially told from his point of view.
Johannes’ may well have all the deluded ideologies (that is putting it very mildly) of the Nazis, but thanks to the script and acting, we realise straight away that this is solely the fault of the world around our protagonist, and that he only ever has the best (if initially very deluded) intentions. His arc is certainly predictable, but it is not only a very good arc (obviously), but also one that we cannot help but want to happen as we do care about him and do not want his obvious innocence to be yet another casualty of war.
How this character arc develops is of course the main narrative focus of the film, and on the whole Watiti handles this very well with not only the right balance of humour and drama, but also a rightful respect for the obvious seriousness of the subject matter. There is obvious humorous observation at just how ridiculous Nazi ideology was (especially from a 21st century point of view) and also the situation at the time the film is set (right near the end when Hitler was facing obvious defeat), but this is still handled with the right amount of restrained respect. Most importantly, the film tries to focus on the war from the sole point of view of its protagonist, and though this provides a rather whimsical tone in a 12a film that admittedly tends to keep things as safe as possible, but on the whole this does work in my view.
The protagonist’s character arc is shaped very well by characters that he meets during the narrative, and due to the strong script and great performances, the inevitable clichés and contrivances are fine. Unsurprisingly the standout is Sam Rockwell, who is effortlessly good as usual, in a very likeable role of a disillusioned Nazi soldier who has a blatant relationship with his assistant (played by Alfie Allen), and as it gets more obvious that Germany will lose the war, he becomes less conscious of trying to hide their relationship. Great support is also provided by Thomasin McKenzie as the young Jewish girl that Johannes befriends, Scarlet Johansson as his mother and Archie Yates as his young friend Yorki. Stephen Merchant is also a delight as a Gestapo agent (he just about manages a sort of German accent), but Rebel Wilson is predictably annoying playing a German version of herself. Watiti gives a very over the top performance as Jojo’s imaginary friend version of Adolf Hitler, and though his particular portrayal does verge on being annoying and a little too over the top, he is actually used quite sparingly enough to not get too annoying and detract from the film’s seriousness. At the end of the day, this particular cinematic incarnation of Adolf Hitler is the protagonist’s imaginary friend, and not supposed to be any kind of realistic depiction.
As the plot progresses Watiti manages to balance the humour with the dramatic, as though we often find moments of subtle humour, Watiti makes sure to never forget the film’s setting, and so moments of humour are then suddenly followed by very sobering moments of serious drama, and it is thanks to Watiti’s script that the film blends the humorous and the serious together well. I am a great believer in the fact that humour can be found in any situation if dealt with appropriately, and from the evidence of Jojo Rabbit, so does Taika Watiti. Unfortunately the narrative does occasionally rely on a few lazy clichés and predictable contrivances in its final third, and not all of the attempts at humour do work, and I certainly understand why some people really don’t like it, but overall Jojo Rabbit is in my view a film that manages to be both funny and moving, and considering the subject matter, that has to be considered a success!
Taika Watiti’s has finally managed to get his passion project made, and thanks mainly to an incredible leading performance, Jojo Rabbit is a film that by in large finds a successful balance between appropriate comedy and genuine heart.