Plain, Simple Tom reviews . . . “Jojo Rabbit” (2019)

Writer/director Taika Waititi’s latest film takes place in Germany during the final days of the second world war and revolves around young Johannes “Jojo” Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis), an enthusiastically proud and committed member of the Hitler Youth Group who has the man himself as an imaginary friend and who is all too happy to follow the teachings of his Führer mentor, preparing for the fight at a youth camp alongside his best friend Yorki (Archie Yates). But when Jojo discovers Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), a Jewish girl hidden in the walls of his house, having been given refuge there by Jojo’s affectionate mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson), the youngster soon begins to question everything he’s been taught as he begins to form a strong bond with the girl and starts to witness the horrors of what’s going on around him.

As another one of those 2019 films that didn’t reach UK cinemas until New Year’s Day this year, it seems as though everyone and their mums have already seen the great Kiwi’s latest cinematic offering, many of them speaking incredibly highly of it and with a lot of reviewers placing it among their top films of the year, so now that it has finally been released over here, I was of course excited to see what all the fuss was about and having now seen it, I must admit that I believe Jojo Rabbit to have been hyped up a little too much because while the film has its moments, containing an assortment of fun characters, a lively cast, an original story and an attempt to show the horrors of war from a child’s point of view, it isn’t as hilarious or as entertaining as it could have been, the pacing is an issue, and the emotionally charged moments come across as a little forced.

Jojo Rabbit is indeed a quirky film that has Waititi’s own brand of offbeat humour and there are plenty of instances where the film manages to be funny and to amuse with a few funny lines or a certain line delivery but overall, I don’t think that the film is funny enough (though comedy is subjective, I know) and that it doesn’t quite succeed in maintaining a genuinely funny atmosphere throughout the runtime. And juxtaposed to the comedy, the film attempts to also have a touching atmosphere in its scenes between Jojo, Elsa and Rosie but although those scenes are well intentioned and necessary for character development and an emotional impact, these scenes try too hard to be heartfelt and the many heart-to-heart scenes come across as a little forced and the several dramatic scenes slow the film down too much – because every time Jojo knocks on the wall to speak to Elsa, we are made all to aware of how sluggish the pacing can be, which is a shame.

But while I don’t consider Jojo Rabbit to be as wonderful as most people are making it out to be, it’s still a very good film because those lighthearted moments did make me smile a lot of the time and the screenplay has a good amount of funny jokes, bits and one-liners that keep the spirits up and it certainly tries hard to be emotionally affecting as well, its heart obviously being in the right place. It also makes sure to highlight those horrors of war from a child’s POV and in the final act (as well as in a totally unexpected and horrible turn of events two-thirds of the way in), the harsh reality of war is made clear to us when we see kids being made to fight a losing battle and to sacrifice themselves on the orders of their superiors – the “give him a hug” line being particularly chilling. The film does well in showing how young people had their heads filled with dangerous ideas and propaganda, conditioned to hate people of different races and religions, and we can clearly recognise that this is something than could happen today as prejudice, racism, hate and distrust are still rampant and the newer generations can be raised to blindly hate all those who are different; Jojo Rabbit is a film with a message, as well as a quirky adventure, and its efforts to put across a “hope not hate” message is laudable and, of course, a film that acts as a giant “f**k you” to Hitler will always be welcome (though watching him get repeatedly shot in the face at the end of Inglorious Basterds will always be the greatest “punch the air” moment in this regard).

The film also uses German language versions of popular songs to a wonderful effect and perhaps above all else, the film’s cast is really quite delightful and go a long way to making it such a worthwhile experience. In the title role, in his feature film debut and impressively gaining a Golden Globe nomination for his efforts, Roman Griffin Davis is very good as our protagonist because, in addition to being so frickin’ adorable, he remains a likeable presence throughout and he does a decent job of conveying Jojo’s blind, childlike fanaticism, yearning to fight for Hitler and remaining unwavering in his devotion to the Nazis, but as he goes through a change and begins to realise the errors of what he’s been taught, he appears as more of an innocent, uncertain young child and he effectively displays the loving feelings that he develops for Elsa (and his mother). Supporting him, Scarlett Johansson takes on a noticeably more lighthearted and comical role than the roles she normally takes and as Rosie, she’s constantly endearing, sweet and so so loveable, playing a particularly caring and affectionate mother who we’d all be lucky to have and in addition, she also effectively shows her character’s toughness and steely spirit as she staunchly sticks up for Jojo and clearly shows how important he is to her. Fan favourite Thomasin McKenzie also does well in showing Elsa’s tough nature and intelligence while also displaying some compassion and warmth later on, Sam Rockwell, Rebel Wilson and Alfie Allen also provide many laughs as the authority figures of the Hitler Youth Group – Rockwell portraying a particularly disillusioned and apathetic commander quite brilliantly while Wilson enjoys one of the better roles that she’s had in a while – Stephen Merchant is a highlight as a particularly creepy Gestapo officer (though his accent’s a bit weak), Archie Yates is a lot of fun as Jojo’s best friend, and Taika Waititi looks like he’s having fun goofing around as a totally ridiculous version of Hitler, losing himself in the silly comedy while also appearing as a horrid bully when required.

Though unevenly paced and with a mismatching clash of tones – not funny enough to be a flat-out comedy and not genuinely emotional in the harder hitting parts – Jojo Rabbit‘s intentions are pure and it features plenty of amusing moments, some touching scenes, and a brilliant cast.

★ ★ ★