Filmmaker Taika Waititi is known for doing the unexpected. He has veered from Wes Anderson-style comedy (SHARK VS. BEAR) to a faux-documentary vampire film (WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS) to Marvel blockbuster (THOR: RAGNAROK). Waititi's latest swerve is JOJO RABBIT, a heartfelt comedy/drama that takes place during World War II.
With a seriously ambiguous name and its somewhat under-the-radar status (especially compared to other big fall films), we thought we’d fill you in on what, exactly, JOJO RABBIT is — and why it might be able to make you laugh.
That trailer gives a good sense of how JOJO RABBIT feels. Waititi’s zany sense of humor is very much present and accounted for, with jokes that might be a bit uncomfortable, but which land well.
You can also get a taste of what the cast is up to, from Roman Griffith Davis as the titular Nazi youth Jojo “Rabbit,” to Scarlett Johansson as his caring mother. Thomasin McKenzie plays the young Jewish girl hidden in the family attic. There are also a bunch of stars to deliver showy supporting roles, with Rebel Wilson, Stephen Merchant, Alfie Allen and recent Oscar®-winner Sam Rockwell all playing Nazis. It’s also worth noting that Waititi plays a fictionalized, imaginary-friend version of Hitler, who converses with Jojo throughout the film.
Put yourself in Jojo's shoes for a moment. He's at an age when teen life and adulthood seem both attractive and a little bit scary. This young man wants to fit in, and he's living in a society that is very eager to tell him how to accomplish that: Join the Nazi party, follow the rules, and get an immediate sense of belonging. The imaginary version of Hitler (beautifully played by Waititi) is a friendly but not entirely innocent guy who helps Jojo understand the world around him, at least at first. And as weird as it seems, he also provides loads of laughs; this childish vision of the figure is inherently ridiculous, and very funny.
The film finds its soul when Jojo begins to think beyond what he's being told. Lies start to feel hollow very quickly when Jojo meets Elsa Korr, a young Jewish woman hiding in his attic. The real friendship that slowly builds between them has the power to eclipse Jojo's imaginary friend, and that might be a signal of a dawning new maturity for the boy. He also starts to see his mother in a different and more complex light, and Waititi's depiction of all of these relationships is far more tender than the film's concept might suggest. (By the way, Thomasin McKenzie, who plays Elsa, was absolutely stunning in the compassionate 2018 film LEAVE NO TRACE, about a troubled veteran and his daughter living off the grid.)
Even if all that seems like it could be a lot to take in, we'd argue that the gifted Waititi is able to navigate the film's tricky ideas as he finds the real heart of the story. Time and again, Waititi has demonstrated an ability to turn odd concepts into great films.
His early movies are daring and adventurous and, frankly, might have looked dicey on paper. HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE, for example, is the story of a hip hop-obsessed boy who runs away from his foster family and right into a journey across the New Zealand bush. Waititi infused the story with sophisticated humor while also modeling the adventure after 1980’s action films, complete with a wonderfully squelchy synth score. All told, the filmmaker's recent run of films, from WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS through WILDERPEOPLE and THOR: RAGNAROK, is a marvelous set of comedies that have far more mainstream appeal than some of them seem at first. (Yes, we just called THOR: RAGNAROK a comedy.)
JOJO RABBIT had its world premiere on September 8th at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). Before the fest began, there was a great deal of speculation (and just as much hand-wringing) about the film, given that it is a comedy set in Nazi Germany.
Guess what? There were no problems! JOJO RABBIT took home the coveted Audience Award at TIFF. That ensured not only that its release would proceed as scheduled, but that it would be a movie to watch as we head into the fall awards season.
Winning the Audience Award at TIFF means a lot; winners wield significant power when going into a highly contentious Oscar season. In fact, in the last few years, the award has become a barometer for what could eventually win the Best Picture Oscar come February. Past Toronto Audience Award winners which went on to win the Best Picture Oscar include GREEN BOOK, 12 YEARS A SLAVE, THE KING’S SPEECH and SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE. Other winners have at least been nominated for Hollywood’s top prize, including THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI, LA LA LAND and ROOM.
Before the Toronto International Film Festival, JOJO RABBIT looked like an odd indie gem. (Which is great!) Now, after that splashy debut, it is a certifiable contender and a potential sleeper hit what just happens to be about a boy whose imaginary friend is one of history's greatest monsters.
All images courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.