JO JO RABBIT – Review
This week’s new comedy/drama is a most unexpected entry in the career of a gifted international filmmaker. After making a name for writing and directing television shows (“Flight of the Conchords”), and a few low budget movies (BOY, EAGLE VS SHARK) in his native New Zealand, Taika Waititi finally scored worldwide success (a critical darling and some modest box office numbers) with WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS, a parody putting vampires in a realty “sharing a house” TV show. His next effort HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE had big laughs along with loads of heart. Then, who should take notice and “come a’ calling”, but Marvel Studios. Sure, they had made a “rep” for enlisting “indie”, largely unknown directors, but this seemed a pretty big gamble in handing over the third flick in one of their most lucrative franchises to him. Luckily THOR: RAGNAROK was a smash as Waititi deftly balanced the big cosmic action sequences with an “off-kilter” sense of humor. He even acted as alien rock-like behemoth Korg (which he reprised in AVENGERS: ENDGAME). So, is he staying in the big “blockbuster” lane? Well, he’ll soon be helming another Thor epic, but first comes a quirky mix of social satire, coming of age drama, and whimsical fantasy, enlisting some “name” actors, all set against the backdrop of 1940s Nazi Germany. It seems that dark time was the playground of a young lad nicknamed JO JO RABBIT.
Yes, ten-year-old Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) is a typical young lad living in Germany during that turbulent time. He’s got a best pal, Yorki (Archie Yates), along with an imaginary buddy. For most kids that might be another boy or even a six-foot talking bunny, but Jo Jo has Adolph Hitler (Taiki Waititi). It figures since he’s a most enthusiastic member of the Hitler Youth and hopes to serve his Fuhrer as a loyal soldier. Jojo’s mother Rosie (Scarlett Johanssen) tolerates her son’s energy as she runs the household alone. Her hubby is missing in Italy and an older daughter passed on years ago. The youth camps are in session, presided over by Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell), though “K” is fine by him. After failing a test of cruelty, the older lads add “Rabbit” to Jojo’s name. Ah, but he’s got a plan to erase that derisive moniker. But his impulsive act of bravado soon proves disastrous. Jojo is still able to help at a local military office, but a future in combat is kaput. And he spends more time at home, trying to occupy himself as Mum runs her “errands”. It’s during one of those long days, that Jojo discovers her secret. Hiding behind the walls of their “flat” is a teenage girl named Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie). And she’s Jewish. What’s a good Ayrian boy to do? His mother will be punished if he reports Elsa. So, he mustn’t let her know he knows (a bit confusing). As the war drags on, Jojo’s inner conflict nearly tears him apart. Is she the evil creature from his studies? And does he feel empathy, or something more, for her?
The story is expertly carried by the energetic natural performance of Davis, who ably conveys the title character’s youthful euphoria, especially in the opening sequence as he “Siege Heils” nearly everyone in his eye-line. Thanks to the influences of his mother and Elsa, Davis also shows us a big change in Jojo’s spirit as he slowly develops sympathy, perhaps a conscience, as he questions the beliefs drilled into him over most of his young life. His wide expressive eyes become a window into his evolving soul. His demeanor is best shown in conflict with the two positive female influences on him. As mom Rosie, Johanssen really gets to explore her playful side as a life-affirming, smiling “sprite” who detests what her beloved homeland has become. As her heart nearly breaks, we see that she’s not about to give up on her son, appealing to the playful, happy-go-lucky boy that’s still somewhere buried inside a future “goose stepper”. And then there’s the formidable Ms. McKenkie (so good in last year’s indie gem LEAVE NO TRACE), whose Elsa has an indomitable spirit, a survivor who must earn Jojo’s trust, but who still challenges him as she becomes a “consultant” on his literary aspirations. McKenzie exudes both fearlessness and intelligence in a terrific supporting role. Speaking of great support, how about Oscar-winning Rockwell who seems to be having a great time as the sour, surly Captain ‘K’, who must endure the onslaught of kids? Still, he finds a kindred spirit in Jojo, as he dreams of glories perhaps still attainable, even designing colorful outfits (lots of frills and capes). One of his underlings is the wonderful Rebel Wilson, freed from studio “rom-com” Hell as the too-helpful Fraulein Rahm, who’s happy to send her charges off to doom with a smile and an encouraging word. The three biggest scene-stealers are first, Stephen Merchant as the most affable Gestapo agent ever, who grins through each threat as he towers over his black-clad minions. Then there’s the sweet work of Yate as pal Yorkie who pops up to cheer up his pal Jojo. His round face with Harold Lloyd glasses makes him resemble a cartoon cherub, yearning to escape the battlefield and get in some play (or cuddle) time. And finally, there’s Taititi as Jojo’s invisible (to others) confidant, buddy AH, who becomes a petulant diva at the least affront from Jojo. It’s a truly tricky role, but Waititi hits every note with confidence and superb comic timing.
Mr. W is quite the triple threat here as he also wrote the screenplay, based on the novel by Christine Leunens. Though some may question making Nazis the object of ridicule, I’m reminded of the musings of Mel Brooks (who was slammed by many for his first flick, THE PRODUCERS, over 50 years ago), who has said in countless interviews that the worst humiliation for the Reich is still be mocked and made the butt of jokes. With their recent resurgence, the time’s more than ripe for this barrage of satiric salvos. But as with last year’s classic BLACKkKLANSMAN, Waititi doesn’t erase the deadly dangers of the group. Yes, as with KKK’s white hoods, these near-robots in their colors of black, grey, red, and brown look like clowns, but their sting is still full of poison. In the town square, Jojo must pass by a public gallows with an ever-changing quartet of “traitors”. These are especially driven home in the story’s final moments, as the war winds down and it’s time to “face the music” (oh, the film is peppered by several great post-war pop songs sung in German by the original British and American artists, from the Beatles to Bowie). There’s great use of locations in Prague, which doubles seamlessly for those German villages. Yes, there are loads of laughs, but Waititi knows just when to slow things down, as Jojo begins to ponder the mysteries of his heart. This work showcases the maturity of this emerging screen storyteller. Before we return with him to New Asgard, we should all take a sweet, surprisingly funny and moving stroll 75 years in the past with JO JO RABBIT.
4 Out of 4