JoJo Rabbit – London Film Festival 2019 – Film Review
A tale of a boy with an imaginary friend set in Nazi Germany was the only description that I had of JoJo Rabbit before attending its press screening. That rather simplified description does sum up the film in a nutshell, but I certainly did not anticipate the amount of slapstick humour it would contain! At times it was difficult to gauge whether to laugh or to cry but Taika Waititi succeeds in fine tuning that balance perfectly in JoJo Rabbit.
Taika Waititi himself stars within Jojo Rabbit as the imaginary friend, which is none other than Hitler in a satirical approach to the film, deemed to be ‘anti-hate satire’. Blending historical moments with fantasy this is another chapter in the revisionist history book of storytelling gracing our screens of late. But there is something endearingly heart-warming and magical about JoJo Rabbit as well, which also knows when to pull at the heart strings effectively with shaky handheld filming and static close ups.
The titular character JoJo is a boy of around 12, enrolled in a Nazi training camp for youths. He is dedicated but relegated to the menial tasks after being subjected to an accident. As such, he is constantly trying to prove his worth as a fully-fledged Nazi with unintended hilarious outcomes. Despite his mishaps, an opportunity arrives when he discovers a secret that his mother has been harbouring. What follows is a tender exploration of growing pains with the first flushes of attraction for the opposite sex and the development of trustworthy friendships.
The scenery, whilst during the bleak World War II setting, is imbued with moments of colour and Scarlet Johansson as JoJo’s mother introduces a colour palette of her own, through her attire, but is also the cheery opposite to JoJo’s stern fanatism. In a moment of foreshadowing, Jojo’s mother urges him to be positive mentioning that ‘life is a gift, we must celebrate it.’
Is this ultimately a children’s story, you might ask? Perhaps so, but it is rather charming and tinged with poignancy that it will appeal to many. Plus, Sam Rockwell is on form in his role which is truly noteworthy. Without wishing to issue too many spoilers, I would recommend suspending your disbelief and allowing yourself to travel down the rabbit hole with JoJo on his amusing journey.
Unfortunately, the women in the film are essentially side-lined and at camp dismissed to go and perform ‘womanly duties’ although Rebel Wilson is on hilarious form as an officer within the regime. Scarlet Johansson’s performance truly stands out as she seeks to navigate JoJo through the vicissitudes of life with brilliant comic timing which elevates the tenser moments. Given the film’s political sub-texts, Scarlet is equally convincing as the quirky liberal seeking to fight injustice.
At times, the camera fragments Scarlet’s body and we witness her shoes solely as she walks along walls and indeed, they resemble the tap shoes seen within films with Sammy Davis Junior and Gene Kelly. As a result, we are privy to scenes with dancing! The shoes are indeed her signature and Taika’s skilful direction means that we can identify Scarlet’s character from the sight of those shoes alone!
Reminiscent of a Wes Anderson film with its colour palette, the scenery of The Grand Budapest Hotel instantly springs to mind as a comparison, JoJo Rabbit crosses genres to explore its whimsical qualities and achieves that cinematic magic as it transports its audience to another world.
At its heart JoJo Rabbit is essentially about the importance of relationships despite all of the distractions it contains. The film seeks to highlight JoJo’s relationship with his peers, his mother, his bosses and others that he meets along the journey and the impact that these have amongst the backdrop of war with its casualties. There are the occasional offensive slurs issued within this setting which may be jarring but propel this from being a mere children’s film to adopting more of an adult tone.
Despite its more serious undertones, JoJo Rabbit retains an air of naivety and positivity and offers its audience that path to escapism through dark comedy.