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MOVIES: Jojo Rabbit (LFF 2019) - Review

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Jojo Rabbit was among my most anticipated films screening at the London Film Festival this year, and it more than delivered, showcasing the diverse range that filmmaker Taika Waititi is capable of as he takes a unique approach to a World War Two film, injecting a healthy amount of comedy as he introduces us to the perspective of the war as seen through the eyes of 10 year old Hitler Youth recruit Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) who begins to question his fanaticism when he discovers a Jewish girl named Elsa Korr (Thomasin McKenzie) living in their home under his mother’s protection. Things are made even more complicated by the existence of an imaginary Hitler (Taika Waititi) that follows Jojo around, doing his best to remind Jojo of his duties to the Third Reich, refusing to let the fact that he doesn't actually exist stop him from making a point.

Waititi pokes fun at hate and evil, delighting in making a mockery out of the Nazis and some of the best jokes in the film come at their expense. The tone is just about kept right, moreso in the first act than in the third act, but the gradual transition is effective and has an almost similar feel to Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin, except with more childhood innocence and heart due to the younger age of its characters and more empathetic nature. We see Jojo struggling to fit in among his more fanatical fellow members of the Hitler Youth, failing to kill a rabbit when asked and earning the nickname “Jojo Rabbit” as a result, and after an accident sees him scarred and unable to take part in his duties at the camp, we see him slowly finding himself befriending Elsa, who is being protected by his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson), who in turn is secretly aiding the resistance.

Elsa is brilliantly played by Thomasin McKenzie, best known for her breakout performance in Debra Granik’s outstanding Leave No Trace, who takes advantage of Jojo’s brainwashing and is able to use it against him to comedic effect before the two eventually find some common ground and strike up an unlikely friendship that lends into the more dramatic moments of the film, as Jojo finds himself slowly understanding that his belief and blind fanaticism is completely wrong.

The supporting cast is full of stellar performances. Scarlett Johansson does an excellent job at bringing both comedic and more emotional elements to the screen, and the duo of Sam Rockwell and Alfie Allen are a delight, with Rockwell no stranger to playing racist characters at this point having played similiar role in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. In this one he plays Captain Klenzendorf, demoted to look after children at the start of the film following previous military experience, and although Allen is playing his second in command for only a short amount of screentime, he earns some of the best gags in the film, a highlight being when he brings a group of German farmers back under his superior’s orders mistaking them for German Shepherds. Rebel Wilson possibly puts in the best performance of her career in an equally small supporting role where she steals every scene and this well-casted group of talented actors really knocks it out of the park. Roman Griffin Davis as Jojo himself in the lead role stellar, and works brilliantly with whoever he’s sharing the stage with, be it Jojo’s friend Yorki (Archie Yates) or even Waititi himself.

There is plenty of laughs to be had in the opening act of the film, and it is Waititi at his most Iannucci-esque, capturing the fine line between comedy and tragedy to perfection. It’s clear that the drama has a lot of heart and a well-meaning message behind it that culminates in a final act that will be instantly turned into as many gifs as possible, as even though it takes a darker turn there are still some very crowd-pleasing moments, with the film itself wrapping up on an incredibly strong note that makes excellent usage of an anachronistic soundtrack, which includes what is possibly the best usage of a David Bowie song in a war film since Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds.

Very loosely adapted from Christine Leuene’s novel, Caging Skies, Jojo Rabbit has proved divisive among audiences and it’s very much a film that you’ll either love or hate. But it succeeds in being the most emotional Taika Waititi film to date as the director continues his hot streak of success after success. He’s rapidly become one of the most talented and flexible filmmakers in the industry at the moment, and after delivering one of the most unique comedies of 2019, his next project will be eagerly anticipated.

Jojo Rabbit is showing at the London Film Festival and its trailer can be found here.

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