Kiwi director Taika Waititi’s new WWII-set comedy-drama Jojo Rabbit skews resonance for dullness.
Off the back off his widely adored hat-trick of What We Do in the Shadows, Hunt for the Wilderpeople and Thor: Ragnorak, it seemed Kiwi director Taika Waititi could do no wrong. Presumably, he was given carte blanche to make whatever project he pleased, ahead of his next Thor instalment, due 2021. Unfortunately, his next move was Jojo Rabbit, a terrifically ill-judged WWII comedy-drama about a Nazi-indoctrinated boy who learns compassion through a Jewish girl sheltered by his mother.
Such a bold set-up would preclude bold screenwriting; however, Jojo Rabbit’s greatest fault is just how weak the writing is. The film is based on Christine Leunens’ book Caging Skies, though apparently in framework alone – purely the Nazi boy and Jewish girl sharing a roof. Waititi took the liberty of adding Hitler as the boy’s imaginary best friend. More on that later.
According to Waititi, his adaptation sat in a drawer since before 2014, when his and Flight of the Conchords’ Jermaine Clement’s breakthrough vampire mockumentary Shadows propelled him into wider public consciousness. Prior to this – presumably concurrently as writing Jojo – Waititi was rather incriminatingly directing 5 episode of the US adaptation The Inbetweeners. This fact isn’t particularly relevant but I can’t imagine many were aware of that version’s existence, let alone imagine Waititi’s comic mastermind being applied to it.
Nonetheless, in 2016 he followed Shadows up with the barnstorming-ly brilliant Hunt For The Wilderpeople, the indisputable comedy hit of that year. Waititi’s surprising deviation into Marvel was a delight, delivering the franchise’s to-date only pure comic outing and with wild success. Not only that, but through the press tours for these films, Taika has become something of a media sensation – a public persona similar to that off a Goldblum-in-waiting.
Handed the keys to Hollywood, we all waited with bated breath for what would surely be his latest ascent. Eyebrows raised in unison when that turned out to be the weird, musty old script from before he was widely regarded as “good”. But faith where faith is due – he was on a hot streak. If any man could pull off a sugary spin on Nazism, it was Taika. Hopefully.
Sadly, Jojo Rabbit proves those hopes misguided. The film follows Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis), an enthusiastic member of the Hitler Youth at the beginning of Germany’s decline in the Second World War. At ten-years old and suitably adorable, he’s not quite hardened soldier material and nor is his pint-sized best pal Yorki (Archie Yates). Jojo’s Dad is away at war and Mum Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) is loving but pre-occupied, so filling his authority-figure void is his ten-year-old’s imaginary version of Hitler (Waititi himself).
After a training accident, Jojo is housebound for recovery, where he discovers that Rosie has taken in Elsa, a Jewish teenager played by Thomasin McKenzie, who was so wonderful in 2018’s Leave No Trace. Spending more time together as the war comes closer to home, Jojo’s “blind fanaticism” is challenged and compassion and humanity come to the fore. While predictable, it’s a valid arc to pursue – there’s a lot of mileage in testing people’s prejudices right now, particularly antisemitism.
With such a provocative concept and high hopes for Waititi’s next effort, it’s really a shame that the film mines almost nothing of value from its promising resources. The film uses GCSE-level WWII history to underpin a massively uneven and resultingly uncomfortable tone that only underscores how the script is ultimately very bland. It’s like Waititi put the script straight into production without realising he never actually finished writing it all those years ago.
Besides the wholly inconsistent faux-German accents, the cast all give a poor script their best shot. Jojo is a believable but boring protagonist, while Elsa stretches all credulity of behaviour as an isolated girl scared for her life. Waititi as Hitler is a complete misstep, albeit at the studio’s insistence – he lacks the gusto to bring life to the caricature, winning only small chuckles for his childlike misuse of common phrases.
Thankfully the screen lights up whenever Sam Rockwell or Stephen Merchant take the screen, as Jojo’s alcoholic team Captain and the local Gestapo leader respectively. Their comic power simply brings life to the thin sketches that Waititi has drawn, injecting quirk and intrigue to a frankly bafflingly uninteresting screenplay. Points also to Archie Yates’ Yorki, whose clumsily sweet relationship with Jojo is utterly endearing, especially their awkward, warm embraces upon greeting one another.
For a film that begins using actual WWII footage and Nazi iconography, its greatest disappointment is how weightless it all feels. Admittedly, there is one gut-punch plot point two-thirds in, though even this feels unearned. Lacking in laughs, solid characterisation or anything new to say, Jojo Rabbit betrays its bold concept to be a film that is, above all, uninteresting.
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I write about and curate film, based in Birmingham. Programme Coordinator for World of Film International Festival, screening new independent world cinema in Glasgow and beyond. Equally devoted to the popular and the niche. Lover of live music, hardcore punk and festival season.