Taika Waititi nails it as director, producer and featured actor
The new film from director Taika Waititi, "Jojo Rabbit," is certain to stir up controversy. In this daring satire, he manages to balance humor with the horrors of war. And it's a brilliant juggling act.
Set during WWII in Germany, "Jojo Rabbit" is the story of a 10-year-old boy, Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis), whose hero is Adolf Hitler. He also just happens to be Jojo's imaginary friend (played by Waititi, himself). Their pep talks with each other are darkly hilarious, as is the Nazi youth camp that Jojo attends. There he is taught to stab people and pitch grenades, one of which explodes in Jojo's hand, scarring him for life. When Jojo refuses to wring a rabbit's neck, he earns the nickname "Jojo Rabbit" from camp instructors played by Sam Rockwell and Rebel Wilson.
Jojo's mother, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson), is on quite a different page than that of her son. She's secretly a conscientious objector and is hiding a Jewish teenage girl, Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), in their home, unbeknownst to Jojo. When he discovers Elsa, his brainwashing kicks in as Hitler instructs Jojo how to handle Elsa. But as the two youths get to know each other, their prejudices fade, and a friendship is forged.
Suddenly, the film alters its course and sets foot into very dark territory. When the Allies invade his town, Jojo is witness to horrific acts, one of which shatters him on the most personal level. It also allows him to put things into their proper perspectives.
Waititi ("What We Do in the Shadows") also wittily scripts this uniquely entertaining film, which won the prestigious Grolsch People's Award at this year's Toronto Film Festival. His Nazi mocking plays well at a time in history when fascism has once again reared its ugly head.
The casting goes beyond all expectations. Rockwell and Wilson play nitwits with such aplomb that it's difficult to stifle laughing out loud. Johansson is charmingly endearing as the mother who loves the son she knows to be inherently good. But it's Davis, in his first professional acting role, who will knock your socks off. At age 11, it's astounding to behold his immense talent. He owns Jojo on every level.
Waititi's risky undertaking in "Jojo Rabbit" pays off for those who can set aside their preconceived ideas of what a Nazi comedy might entail. Some might ask if it's permissible fun. My answer: if you allow it to be.
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