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[Fantastic Fest Review]…Taikia Waititi’s JoJo Rabbit

When it comes to a film by Taika Waititi, there’s a nebulous and unique aspect to his productions that people just love. Why? Well, everything he does has incredible heart to it. Jojo Rabbit is a film about a small boy growing up in a big world, and experiencing it during World War II, and from the German side. The fact that he is extremely fond of Adolf Hitler goes without saying. Sounds like a real knee slapper, right?

Good news is that it is a side-splitting, howling funny knee slapper. The film is incredibly poignant and well-balanced look at how and why, even from a young age, we should ask question – of our leaders, our parents, and each other. People aren’t born knowing hate; it’s learned over the years and through experiences. So while the evil black mark in history that was the Nazi regime is nothing new to anyone reading this review, this isn’t an interesting and refreshing take to see it through the innocence of a 10 year-old boy. 

The main theme at the center of this picture is how lies become reality, and how it changes an entire person’s way of thinking. Once a seed is planted, it’s very difficult to pull up roots to upend a tree be it a sapling or a mighty oak. In this film, Jojo’s enthusiasm is quite infectious, yet we have the benefit of seeing how wrong it is. In his defense, blind fanaticism can’t possibly be wrong, especially when he shares the mindset of the entire country, right? 

Starting with the eponymous youth, every character makes the best of even the most dire situations. In the Q&A, Taika said he did not want to do a straight up comedy, nor did he want a focused drama. The only way to do this, and have it succeed, was to craft a hybrid of the two. When I spoke to him on the red carpet, we talked about how and why he puts heart into all his pictures. And it’s true. This is a dark, dark, dark, film, but he deals with it with heart, heart, heart. 

Headlining JoJo Rabbit (based on the book Caging Skies by Christine Leunens) is an absurd cast (Sam Rockwell, Rebel Wilson, et al) that really carries narrative. They are as brilliant as they are absurd​ because what Waititi does best is give his actors plenty of freedom. Over time, in the film, they change in unison with JoJo and begin seeing things from a different perspective – he really is quite the catalyst.

Scarlett Johansson plays JoJo’s mother. She tells him that it is possible to love her country but hate the war. That very human element is the heartbeat of the film. We see that the young Jojo is surrounded by good and bad – a timeless theme – and choosing one over the other will define the person he we will become. It is the parents’ job to protect and raise the child, but it is never easy, much less with a war on. Exchanges between JoJo and his mother are especially charming and really bring a lot of the above mentioned heart to the film. 

Jojo (played by Roman Griffin Davis) is a special character himself. The film is incredibly sweet and, many times, heart-wrenching witnessing JoJo experience pain or having his eyes opend to life’s hard truths, especially when much of his youth was built on lies. Words and ideas are one thing, but 10 year-olds shouldn’t be celebrating war and talking politics, or learning how to throw a grenade. They should just be 10-year-olds. It’s fair to say that JoJo Rabbit starts and ends like a Wes Anderson film (not a bad criticism) but everything in this hilarious and emotional film is 1000% Taika Waititi. Word of advice: bring tissues.  

JoJo Rabbit was the opening night film at Fantastic Fest. Before it screened, we were on the red carpet with our friends at BigFanBoy and BoomstickComics. Enjoy the antics of Taika Waititi & Stephen Merchant!