I love Taika Waititi movies. He has a proven track record of comedies. Hunt for the Wilderpeople proved that he could blend comedy and drama into a cohesive package. That makes his inability to repeat that balance in Jojo Rabbit so much more surprising. The first two-thirds of the movie is a slap-stick laugh out loud comedy. This all changes as the train leaves the tracks and we are thrust into an entirely different movie. One filled with pain, suffering, and sadness. The movie eventually gets back on the comedy tracks, but the transitions are rough.
The trailer sets you up for all the comedic parts of the movie. Rebel Wilson plays Fraulein Rahm, the caricature we have grown to expect from Rebel. The character adds humor, but nothing else. I can’t think of a reason for her to be in the movie. The most egregious use of Fraulein Rahm is when she sets up an unsuspecting child as a suicide bomber.
The movie highlights some of the more laughable Nazi ideas about the Jews, horns, smells, and the like. Jojo sets out to write a book on how to identify Jews. Real examples of what was taught in German schools are included to point out just how insane the Nazi beliefs were. The problem is this movie isn’t only about pointing and laughing at Nazis. It tries to pluck your heartstrings but is far less effective at it.
Taika plays Adolf Hitler, the imaginary friend of Jojo. Jojo, Roman Griffin Davis, is a ten-year-old boy desperate to find a sense of community and belonging. He is proud of his Hitler Youth uniform, but he isn’t a cold-blooded killer. Making his imaginary friend Hitler, was a great move. It is the high point of the movie but never pays off in the dramatic storyline.
Scarlett Johansson is Rosie, Jojo’s mother. She is as wonderful as we have come to expect. Since the movie follows Jojo there is plenty of mystery surrounding Rosie. She knows the war is ending and that Germany will fall, so she is anxious to get life back to normalcy. She makes sure to push Jojo to think beyond the war and tries to give him a semblance of a normal childhood. Also, her shoes are gorgeous and there are plenty of close-ups on them.
Sam Rockwell plays a gay captain in the German Army assigned to a desk job to look after youth and a small town. His character has an existing relationship with Rosie that is never fully fleshed out. His beliefs and intentions are not explored, yet he plays a pivotal role in the movie. It is unclear if he sees the light and changes his ways, or if his relationship with Rosie is deeper than living in the same community. His character is just not fleshed out enough for the impact and consequences of his actions.
Thomasin McKenzie stars opposite Jojo as Elsa. She is the source of Jojo’s book on Jews. She is wise beyond her years as she has had to struggle her entire life. She plays off Jojo’s emotions brilliantly. Waititi does a wonderful job with children actors. Archie Yates, Yorki, is Jojo’s best friend who gets to join the army because he is eleven, clearly old enough to go to war. The chemistry between Jojo and Yorkie is adorable. I want to see more Yorkie and Jojo. The adventures they will go on after the war will be amazing.
The film has a Wes Anderson vibe in the color pallet. Everything is brilliantly colored, unlike the usual gray, drab setting for war films. It is a feast for the eyes. It fits in well with the comedic parts of the movie. Once the story turns dramatic the sky goes a little grey, but the changes are subtle as many vivid colors remain.
I enjoyed the movie despite feeling uncomfortable when the movie makes a sharp turn. Laughing at the jokes towards the end of the movie was harder because of previous events. It really felt like two independent movies. Life is Beautiful is another comedic take on Nazi occupation. It has slapstick humor peppered throughout scenes in a concentration camp. Life is Beautiful does a far superior job of poking fun at Nazis while also having a heart-wrenching component. That may be why it won best foreign film in 1998 along with the lead, Roberto Benigni, taking the Oscar for Best Actor. I am still a Taika Waititi fan, but I hope he returns to his past work that can better blend genres.