Jojo Rabbit

Jojo Rabbit ★★★

Writer/director Taika Waititi's previous films had me really looking forward to Jojo Rabbit and while there is a lot to like here, I don't think this is his best work.

Making a satirical film about a young boy, Johannes "Jojo" Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis), who is right into being a member of the Hitler Youth, was always going to come with some risks. How Jojo came by his nickname is revealed early in the film in a scene that had the Mums sitting around me wondering whether this was a film they should have brought their small and pre-teen kids to (it wasn't).

Interestingly, Jojo gets most of the lines that contain the worst anti-Semitic slurs and stereotypes. His imaginary friend, Adolf Hitler (played by the director), does not do much of the heavy lifting in this regard, and the Gestapo characters laugh at how ridiculous this material is when they find it written down in the "book" Jojo is compiling. However, while most people in the audience would get the satire, I could not help wondering whether Blair Cottrell and his ugly gang in the United Patriots Front and the Lads Society would be watching this and cheering Jojo on. The fugly alt-right don't really get satire.

There are some plot twists early in the film that mean that any kind of synopsis is going to contain spoilers, so that's it from me plot-wise.

The real disappointment for me was that this felt so derivative. Waititi adapted his screenplay from New Zealand/Belgian novelist Christine Leunens's book Caging Skies (2008) but the film looks like a Wes Anderson movie and reminded me in particular of Moonrise Kingdom (2012). Scarlett Johansson's character (Rosie, Jojo's mother) and Sam Rockwell's character (Captain Klenzendorf) and some of the scenes between Jojo and Elsa (another knockout performance from Thomasin McKenzie) could slot neatly into several Anderson films.

In a uniformly strong ensemble cast, I particularly also enjoyed Archie Yates as Jojo's friend Yorki. In many ways, the strength of Yorki's adherence to Nazism is the barometer of how the last year of the war is going and how out of touch Jojo is with what is happening around him.

Pulling off this kind of material and keeping it light enough to simultaneously play up the darker undertow is a tricky business and Waititi does not have Anderson's touch here. Some of the problems may be that he is aiming for a family audience and dumbs some things down for them. Did we really need to see a graphic of animated butterflies in Jojo's stomach to be able to read what was happening at that point? And the pay off of Jojo's inability to tie his own shoelaces as a ten year old is painfully predictable and a damp squib.

I was also struck by JoJo's resemblance to Oskar Matzerath (David Bennent) in Volker Schlöndorff's The Tin Drum (1979), adapted from the Günter Grass novel about another young German boy who is traumatised by WWII: - they're very different material, of course, but I can still remember the Oskar character in a way I doubt that I will the Jojo character in another 40 years.

Waititi's inspired vampire comedy, What We Do in the Shadows (2014), shows what he can deliver when he pushes the envelope and takes risks. It is a shame that he did not bring more of that to his work here.

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