Johannes ‘Jojo’ Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis) is growing up in the midst of World War II, which can’t be easy for any 10 year old. Thankfully Jojo has an imaginary Fuhrer in the shape of Adolf Hitler (Taika Waititi) to guide him through the ups and downs of growing up in Nazi Germany.
On paper Jojo Rabbit looks like a tremendously bad idea even for Taika Waititi a director with a reputation for finding humour in the most unlikely situations. There aren’t really many chuckles to be found during a particularly dark periods in human history and making one of history’s biggest monsters into a fun imaginary friend is a tall order.
I think in the opening half hour or so Jojo Rabbit really succeeds on novelty value alone. Taika Waititi’s performance as Jojo’s imaginary friend, Adolf Hitler, is surprisingly endearing. He’s funny and sweet and well silly most of the time but then again he is created out of the brain of a ten year old boy. In retrospect, he’s a bit like a genocidal version of Drop Dead Fred. There are some fantastically funny moments in the early parts of the film it does lose some momentum in the middle of the film.
Jojo’s imaginary friend shifts to something altogether more vile and repulsive once Jojo discovers the Jewish girl, Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), hiding in his house and it rouses his suspicions that his mother, Rosie – Scarlett Johansson in excellent form, is part of the resistance. It’s at this point that the film shifts gears a little bit as we just how much the repulsive ideas have taken root in Jojo’s mind and all of that is thrown into chaos when he actually meets a Jewish person and realises that they aren’t demons sent to destroy his way of life.
This is a really difficult film to unravel. One minute I found myself laughing at the utter ridiculousness of the situation and the silly friendship between a boy and his genocidal dictator but then the film would lurch into some rather dark territory. It tackles some huge themes, and I’m a firm believer that comedy can provide an excellent way to investigate uncomfortable ideas and Jojo Rabbit certainly does that. The only problem I had was that the one could lurch rather quickly from one thing to the next without warning.
The film is full of bungling, ‘Allo Allo! esque comedy Nazis like Sam Rockwell and Rebel Wilson’s characters, and they are quite fun, but then things take a sharp right turn into darker territory. There’s a particularly taut and tense sequence featuring the Gestapo (which includes Stephen Merchant) that is terrifying and funny all at the same time.
I liked what the film tried to do and while it might not always land perfectly it feels better to have reach for the stars and fall a little short. The film does a great job of conveying the unfolding horrors of war through the eyes of an innocent. The film might not manage to balance the comedic and tragic elements perfectly but it’s an interesting and thought-provoking ride.