★★★★½ - STUFF
- Jojo Rabbit: Taika's fabulous farce and Fuhrerness-filled World War II tale -
Map reading, war games and blowing stuff up.
The Hitler Youth's Special Training Weekend offers a plethora of exciting of activities for a 10-year-old fan of the Fuhrer. But it's also a potential minefield for a scrawny, unpopular boy who can't tie his own shoelaces.
If some of the earlier requests tested his resolve, it was the order to kill a rabbit that broke Jojo Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis). Unable to comply, he flees, finding solace by having a heart-to-heart with his imaginary best friend – Adolf Hitler (Taika Waititi). Returning to the group with a new spring in his step, Jojo seizes a grenade – and proceeds to injure himself.
Demanding that the camp co-ordinator Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell) find some purposeful work for her scarred child, Jojo's single-mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) is delighted when he gives him a series of odd jobs, including propaganda pamphlet distribution. With all his contemporaries away in training though, Jojo has more time on his hands. And it's while home alone that he discovers his mother's dark secret.
With a World War II setting and dramatic-comedic mix, Kiwi film-maker Waititi's latest film has drawn many comparisons to Roberto Benigni's 1995 Oscar winner Life is Beautiful (and to a lesser extent the awful 1999 Robin Williams' tale Jakob the Liar). In truth, it's nothing like them.
Those were tales that struggled tonally (Beautiful, for all its uplifting moments, was a mawkish nightmare) and strained for big emotions, whereas Jojo Rabbit shines with its combination of understated laughs and, sometimes haunting, visual flourishes. With a child's viewpoint of war and evocation of a very specific time and place, this is far more like Empire of the Sun-meets-Moonrise Kingdom. Indeed, there's a case for saying this is the best Wes Anderson movie Wes Anderson never made.
Waititi fills his tale (based on Christine Leunens' 2008 novel Caging Skies) with quirky characters (Rockwell's Captain K is a particular delight), crazy scenarios, fabulous one-liners (at one point Jojo's best mate Yorki laments that it's "definitely not a good time to be a Nazi") and fantastic sight gags (there's a German shepherd jape that is truly inspired).
But, as with Spielberg's underrated Empire, Jojo is also the story of the end of one boy's innocence. Waititi doesn't shy away from darker moments, with one magnificently shot scene likely to take your breath away and open the tear ducts.
Debutant Davis is a revelation, but then Waititi has form when it comes directing young actors (Boy's James Rolleston, Hunt for the Wilderpeople's Julian Dennison). He also makes great use of a fabulous supporting cast that also includes Stephen Merchant, Alfie Allen, Rebel Wilson and our own Thomasin McKenzie and threatens to steal the whole shebang himself with his 10-year-old boy's vision of Hitler. Not of all his asides work, but thankfully the overall effect is closer to Chris O'Dowd's Sean "Caution" Murphy (Moone Boy) than Rick Mayall's Drop Dead Fred.
Some may bridle at the lack of accents and the combination of written German and spoken English, but it's Waititi world-building that you'll quickly adapt to. As for its awards season prospects? Its polarising subject probably means they are limited, but then it has already claimed a more important prize – the audience award at the Toronto International Film Festival – a gong also collected by the likes of Amelie, The Princess Bride, Strictly Ballroom and Whale Rider.
In the end, the audience will leave uplifted by this enthralling, entertaining plea for tolerance and know that they've seen a very Waititi take on World War II (Bowie tracks, robots and all).
- James Croot, STUFF