BFI #LFF 2019: JOJO RABBIT Film Review

Taika Waititi and Roman Griffin Davis in Jojo Rabbit

Combining the absurd and the hilarious, JOJO RABBIT delivers a poignant message about acceptance, love and learning from our past mistakes

4 out of 5 stars

A coming-of-age comedy about a young boy who befriends Hitler as his imaginary friend hardly sounds like a Hollywood hit but anyone can pull it off, its Taika Waititi. Winning over fans with his unique sense of humour in films like HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE, THOR: RAGNAROK and WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS, Waititi returns to the big screen with his latest film, JOJO RABBIT, an anti-hate satire about challenging dogma and hate.

Set in the 1940s, JOJO RABBIT follows Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) a young boy living in Germany in the final days of the Second World War. With his father gone, Jojo’s closest friend is an imaginary Adolf Hitler (Waititi) who he is blindly devoted to. But when Jojo discovers his mother (Scarlett Johansson) has been hiding a young Jewish girl (Thomasin McKenzie) in their house, Jojo must go to war with his own conscience.

Considering the somewhat sticky subject, you’d be forgiven for being a little skeptical about Waititi’s latest feature but, as oddly as it sounds, there is a lot to like with JOJO RABBIT. The opening sequence, which sees images of the Heil Hitler salute and Nazi Germany flashing across the screen to an upbeat German version of The Beatles’ I WANT TO HOLD YOUR HAND, instantly sets the tone for this exuberant and irreverent comedy, Waititi combining the absurd and the hilarious to deliver a poignant message about acceptance, love, and learning from our past mistakes.

Taika Waititi, Roman Griffin Davis and Scarlett Johansen in Jojo Rabbit

As both director and performer, Waititi is on top form here, playing a ludicrously comic version of the Führer, with hints of sinister at times. His chemistry with newcomer Griffin David – who puts in one of the most convincing child performances in years – ultimately makes the film, their exchanges providing a great deal of humour and many of the film’s laugh-out-loud moments.

Scarlett Johansson is dazzling as Jojo’s mother, bringing warmth and reality to the film, particularly against the caricature characters around her. Thomasin McKenzie also delivers an equally nuanced performance as Elsa, the young Jewish girl hiding in Jojo’s home.

Elsewhere, Archie Yates almost steals the show as Jojo’s camp buddy while Rebel Wilson, Alfie Allen and Stephen Merchant play their Nazi characters in an intentionally cartoonish way, although Sam Rockwell is given a little bit more to work with as the one-eyed commandant.

Taika Waititi and Roman Griffin Davis in Jojo Rabbit

Yet, just as you’re beginning to settle into this daft and sarcastic satire, Waititi suddenly delivers a unexpected emotional punch that knocks you off our feet. It is here where the tone of the film changes dramatically and while Waititi gifts us some time for this to sink in, when he does try to bring the comedy back, it doesn’t seem to be as funny anymore.

That said, for the most part, Waititi’s unique style of comedy helps to sell the anti-hate message, the film not only tackling the ludicrousness of racism and nationalism, but delivering it with emotional charge and tenderness. JOJO RABBIT may not be to everyone’s tastes, but like me, most will find it riotously funny, moving and relevant.

JOJO RABBIT screens at the BFI London Film Festival on 5 October 2019 and is released in UK cinemas on 3 January 2020