Taika Waititi is quickly becoming one of the most electrifying and zany filmmakers working today.
Every film he’s made has been completely different from the last, and Waititi brings his own wacky sense of humor to each of them. My introduction to his work came through 2016’s “The Hunt for the Wilderpeople” — a bizarre comedy that follows a rugged old man and a hip-hop obsessed young boy on their adventures through New Zealand’s wilderness. In 2014, Waititi also directed one of my favorite comedies, “What We Do in the Shadows,” a mockumentary about four vampires sharing a flat in modern-day New Zealand, and in 2017 he helmed the smash-hit Marvel blockbuster “Thor: Ragnarok.”
Waititi never fails to produce the most ludicrously witty comedies imaginable. Because of the absurdist approach from which he has constructed his career, I was curious as to how he would handle the subject matter of his newest film, “Jojo Rabbit.”
“Jojo Rabbit” is self-described as an anti-hate satire. The story is set in Germany during the final years of World War II. Its main character, Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis), is a 10-year-old boy filled with German patriotism and hoping to serve on Adolf Hitler’s personal guard when he grows up. Alongside Jojo is his imaginary friend — a version of Hitler played by Waititi — who encourages him and offers him advice during tough situations.
After Jojo is sent home from a Nazi-training summer camp, he discovers that his mother (Scarlett Johansson) is hiding a teenage Jewish girl named Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) in their house. Over the course of this film, Jojo and Elsa form a connection, and Jojo finds himself struggling between becoming the Nazi he wants to be and the genuinely kind person he actually is.
After reading that synopsis, you would be forgiven for thinking this movie is a drama, but in reality, with “Jojo Rabbit,” Waititi delivers what might be one of his funniest and most heartwarming films yet.
The soul of the film lies in the relationship that develops between Jojo and Elsa.
These two characters come from completely different backgrounds and when they first meet one another they do not get along — for obvious reasons. However, as the film goes on, these two characters have a lot of intimate interactions, and they begin to get to know and like one another. Neither wants Jojo’s mother to know that Jojo found Elsa, so they have this shared secret that evolves into form a genuine friendship.
A big part of what makes this relationship work is the performances from Davis and McKenzie. Waititi has gained a reputation for being able to get great performances out of children, and “Jojo Rabbit” features some of the best acting from kids that I’ve seen in a while.
Jojo experiences incredibly complex emotions in this film, but since he’s only 10 years old, he’s not able to process them very well — which Davis was able to excellently portray. Through Davis’s performance, it’s apparent that Jojo is conflicted over doing what he considers to be his duty and what he thinks is right. All the while, he never loses the sense of innocence that comes with being a kid.
McKenzie also did an excellent job at giving her character a lively spirit, even though she’s at the darkest point in her life. Elsa is all alone, and her family has most likely been killed. Yet, she tries to keep her head up and stay hopeful. McKenzie brought that sense of resiliency to life, as she was great in both emotional and comedic moments.
The two other standout performances in the film come from Waititi as Adolf Hitler, recontextualized as Jojo’s imaginary friend, and from Sam Rockwell as Captain Klenzendorf, a captain in the Nazi army.
Waititi’s take on Hitler is completely farcical. Waititi himself is a Jewish man from New Zealand, so conceptually he’s pretty far from the typical image of Hitler, and he really plays into that with his extravagant performance. He portrays this imaginary version as an over-the-top and utterly hilarious parody of the real figure. He often starts yelling and going on long rants about random topics while being completely oblivious to the many logical fallacies that he (meaning both the real and fictional Hitler) has. Waititi is unceasingly poking fun at and mocking Hitler with his trademark wit and silliness which never fails to amuse.
Rockwell takes a similar approach to his character, portraying the Nazi captain as a hysterical caricature that consistently earns big laughs from the audience. As the film goes on, however, Rockwell adds some complexity to the character by injecting genuine and completely unexpected emotions to the character. His work morphs into a legitimately great performance, which adds credence to the themes of understanding the film carries.
It's these themes of acceptance and resiliency in the face of hate that keep “Jojo Rabbit” from just being two hours of mocking Nazis. While there certainly is a lot of that, keeping the focus of the film on the relationship between Jojo and Elsa, enabled Waititi to make this film not only earn its “anti-hate satire” title, but go beyond that and actively encourage love and kindness. That might seem sappy, but hey, a little sappiness isn’t always a bad thing.
“Jojo Rabbit” proves Waititi’s ability to portray legitimately emotional and heartwarming experiences that go beyond comedy. There’s really no other filmmaker like him working right now, and with this film I believe he’s cemented his place among the current best directors and filmmakers in the business.