Taika Waititi latest film has had a tough birth. With the script written in 2012, before What We Do In The Shadows, Thor: Ragnarok wasn’t even on the table at Marvel yet, had made Wititi a household name and nobody would listen to him. All they would hear when he was talking about his idea was “World War 2” and shut him out.
The idea was about a ten-year-old boy named Jojo Betlzer at the end of the war is excited to become one of the Hitler Youth. He neither can comprehend or understand what this would mean for his future, let alone anything to do with the word “Nazi”. No, Jojo believes in Hitler SO much that he’s developed an imaginary friend… Adolf Hitler. That only he can see and talk too.
When Jojo goes off to the Hitler Youth Summer Training Camp, he quickly becomes in conflict with his own beliefs, fighting to see Nazi as something awesome. But he doesn’t give up as he fights to vindicate for what he feels is his life’s calling. To his surprise though, his mother has hidden a young Jewish girl in their home. Jojo’s entire perspective comes in conflict as he fights to understand, what he feels, is a betrayal from his own mother and as he tries to comprehend the possible fate for this Jewish girl.
Does he turn in this girl? What happens to his mother if he does? Jojo wrestles with what to do as he asks everyone for advice.
Thankfully, as Taika’s career grew, he was able to make the movie with Fox eight years later. Eight years later though, with a full and completed film and Disney ends up buying Fox. And, eight years later, Taika runs into the exact same problem he had when he was pitching the idea. Disney didn’t want to release the film because they were uncomfortable with the subject matter of World War 2.
Thankfully, cooler heads prevailed. And Jojo Rabbit will see its release October of this year. Currently making its way through the festival scene, Jojo Rabbit is absolutely everything you expect from Taika Waititi film. It’s going to be oddly funny. And you get that with this film but what was unexpected was how much heart this film had. At its core, this is a film about a single-parent family. Very much as Taiki himself was raised. To the point, it was his own mother that introduced him to Christine Leunens’s book Caging Skies about a devote member of the Hitler Youth discovers his parents are hiding a Jewish girl.
And Roman Griffin Davis, the kid playing Jojo is so good in this and being able to connect with you on that emotional of a level, that you would be utterly shocked to realize this is his first feature film. Faced with a cast that includes Taika himself, Scarlett Johansson, Sam Rockwell, Stephen Merchant, Rebel Wilson, Alfie Allen, and Tomasin McKenzie, this ten-year-old kid more than holds his own against them well connecting with you completely. It’s an unbelievable talent that leaves the Stranger Things kids in his dust.
The core of this being a single mother raising her son, the relationship that Davis and Johansson created seem so amazingly genuine that it was heartwarming to watch them together. And Taika and Johansson create in Rosie Betzler one of the Johansson’s best performances of her career. The genuine conflict in keeping the Jewish girl, Elsa, and hiding from her Jojo. Johansson is hit or miss in her performances for me, mostly miss. But she played a genuinely enjoyable role. Rosie was smart, strong, and passionate.
Sam Rockwell’s Captain Klenzendorf, a former solider having troubles fitting into his new desk job after training the Hitler Youth fails. Taika and Rockwell smartly gave Klenzendorf some genuinely touching layers that added unpredictability to the story. And Rockwell continues to build on his reputation of being a brilliant character actor by playing the captain against the archetype. I have to mention Alfie Allen, who does so much with so little for the role of Finkel, the captain’s aid. I have to give so much credit to Taika for allowing Allen and Rockwell to play with these characters and add even more with very little.
Thomasin McKenzie’s Elsa, the Jewish girl in the walls reverberates strength with an incredibly quiet voice. Very much the voice on Jojo’s shoulder, McKenzie enjoys playing up Elsa’s teasing of Jojo about what Jewish people do and look like. All the while, creating a tone of humour while carrying a far more serious undertone in the subtext.
Stephen Merchant uses his imposing height to good use as the SS captain Deertz. A true believer and zealot, Merchant plays it honestly and inflects the humour in a very natural and very British-style. An idea of what British-style comedy is. Taika is from New Zealand, very polite people down there and they will be afraid to offend someone. The British don’t give a damn. If there’s an opportunity for a joke in there, they’ll take it. And Merchant performs a masterclass in comedic timing.
What truly makes these performances stand out is that Taika has put little to no score in this film. So when it’s Elsa teaching Jojo about the Jewish people and what’s waiting for her if she’s caught, you’re with them because it’s genuinely just them in a room acting as good, if not better than a lot of the far more established actors that I can think of that could play these roles.
Taika chooses to play his music so sparingly that when he does use score, you find yourself remembering those moments the most. These are almost always moments between a mother and her son. Instead, choosing to score the war scenes with the natural backdrop of gunfire and explosions. What else do you need for war?
And there is war in this film, set at the tail end of the war, the allies have been closing in for the entire film. Taika again picks and chooses his moments and doesn’t play to either side in the sequences. This isn’t exactly Saving Private Ryan. But for however brief a period the fighting is in actually the film, it creates for some extraordinarily powerful cinema because for all the fighting, for the moments of war you expect to see, this is a ten-year-old boy running through an active war zone trying not to be killed.
Taika wrote the script for Jojo Rabbit eight years ago. Long before the current U.S. political climate. Despite this, it’s drawing comparisons to Chaplin’s The Last Dictator. For those who don’t know, the short version is that Chaplin was trying to tell the world to pay attention to what Hitler was becoming and what his rhetoric was doing. But nobody was listening to him. So he decided to use the one platform people would listen to him and the tramp spoke for the first time in history. In what is still the greatest written moment in cinematic history.
It’s a justified comparison. But at its core, Jojo Rabbit is the story of a single mother raising her son set to the backdrop of World War 2 with, as Taika says, “A few jokes here and there”. And that is the true sign of something being great when you have people creating that kind of comparisons to a film that you were never intending.
Being released in October, Jojo Rabbit is making the festival rounds right now and getting rave review after rave review. Everything you’ve heard about this film is true. Jojo Rabbit is one of the most genuinely touching films of this year and well worth five out of five stars. See this movie in theatres. See it with an audience so you can laugh together and cry together. And hopefully, allow Studios like Disney realize we need more films like this in the theatres.