Jojo Rabbit review: "Taika Waititi's hate-satire is giddy escapism" – TIFF 2019

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Disposable frivolity that promises fun at the cinema, if not resonance.

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 Taika Waititi hate satire has premiered at Toronto International Film Festival – here's Total Film's review... 

There are two hot-ticket young-boy-suffers-at-the-hands-of-Nazis films at TIFF this year. One is a three-hour hypo-realistic endurance test (The Painted Bird) with a somewhat opaque takeaway. The other is Jojo Rabbit; Taika Waititi’s unashamedly accessible and entertaining satire which has a blunt message amid the German Shepherd jokes. 

Sharing DNA with Monty Python, Moonrise Kingdom, The Great Dictator and even ‘Allo ‘Allo, JoJo Rabbit is satire that could be criticised as unsophisticated as German 10-year-old Jojo (Roman Griffin Davies, astonishingly good) uses his imaginary friend Hitler (Taika Waititi, going big or going home) to get through the last days of WW2. 

His coming of age in this turbulent time is shaped by various characters: his luminous single Mum, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) who may be "cursed with looking incredibly attractive" but is a rebel; his Hitler Youth friend (scene-stealing, Archie Yates); Sam Rockwell’s flamboyant SS officer; and – most importantly – Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), a Jewish refugee his mother is hiding in the walls of his house. Can JoJo, who is "massively into swastikas", change his learned hate? 

Though the main thrust of this riotous romp is the gleefully absurd – universally sloppy German accents, anachronistic music and dialogue, repeated Heil Hitler jokes, kids chucking grenades – there’s heart to be found amid the clowning. At surface level this is a Four Lions-approach in ridiculing extremist views – and it’s hard not to giggle at Hitler talking like a petulant kid. But in between the belly laughs there’s also a moving story about grief; of losing a sister, a daughter, a parent, a people. A scene at a hanging scaffold is a genuine emotional gut-punch after the kick-in-the-balls gags and Stephen Marchant’s daft Gestapo turn. 

Waititi’s irreverent, goofy screenplay takes a hard left turn from Christine Leunens’ dark novel, Caging Skies, on which it’s based, and though it dabbles with the horror of the Third Reich it never examines their worst atrocities (genocide is addressed in a throwaway jibe). And that perhaps, is too careless in today’s world of a rising far right and stealth dictatorships. But if you’re looking for giddy escapism, Bowie tunes and an unapologetic good time with a side order of remembrance for of WW2, then you’ll have as much fun as the cast clearly had making this. And that German Shepherd gag is a cracker.

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Editor-in-Chief, Total Film

Jane Crowther is the Editor of Total Film magazine and the Editor-in-Chief of the Film Group here at Future Plc, which covers Total Film, SFX, and numerous TV and women's interest brands. Jane is also the vice-chair of The Critics' Circle and a BAFTA member. You'll find Jane on GamesRadar+ exploring the biggest movies in the world and living up to her reputation as one of the most authoritative voices on film in the industry.