Jojo Rabbit

Jojo Rabbit ★★★½

"(It's) definitely not a good time to be a Nazi." ~ Yorki

Because this dark comedy was directed by New Zealand's Taika Waititi, who has never let me down, I was eager to see it on the big screen. Roman Griffin Davis plays ten-year-old Johannes "Jojo" Betzler, who gains his derogatory nickname at a Nazi Youth Camp when he fails to kill a bunny as commanded by one of the trainers. In times of stress or confusion, Jojo turns to his imaginary best friend Adolf Hitler (Waititi), who coaches him in being brave and conforming to the party line. Jojo's mother Rosie Betzler (Scarlett Johansson) has been raising Jojo by herself since her husband went off to fight in Italy and her daughter, Jojo's elder sister older sister Inge, recently died of influenza.

Jojo's best friend besides Adolf is a tubby little eleven-year-old named Yorki (Archie Yates), who wears dark-rimmed glasses and does his best to be Jojo's sidekick. Other characters include the closeted Camp Commander Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell), his personal aide Finkel (Alfie Allen), Camp Instructor Fräulein Rahm (Rebel Wilson) and the Gestapo Agent Deertz (Stephen Merchant!). The plot is propelled first by an exploding grenade that leaves Jojo with a scarred face and a game right leg, and then by the boy's discovery of a Jewish girl named Elsa Korr (Thomasin McKenzie), who has been hidden in a secret room of their house by Jojo's mother, a member of the anti-Fascist underground.

Waititi manages to make fun of something patently unfunny, the Holocaust, without belittling the horror of Nazism and war. That's certainly a testament to his skills as a writer-director. And he proves once again that his forte is portraying adolescents who struggle to find their way in a world ruled by adults. On the other hand, although I enjoyed this, I didn't feel he made the best use of his locations in the Czech Republic... too much of the action takes place indoors or on city streets. And casting himself as the Führer worked well in some places, but in others it sagged under the weight of his own sense of humor.

The filmmaker has already won the Grolsch People's Choice Award at Toronto and the Audience Award Special Mention at Aspen. Expect more prizes before the Awards season closes. But if you have to wait to see this on DVD, not much will be lost in the conversion to a smaller screen. It's very good, but not the level of excellence I was hoping for.

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