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Jojo Rabbit

Year: 2019
Production Co: TSG Entertainment
Studio: Fox Searchlight
Director: Taika Waititi
Writer: Taika Waititi
Cast: Roman Griffin Davis, Scarlett Johansson, Thomas McKenzie, Taika Waititi, Sam Rockwell, Rebel Wilson, Alfie Allen, Stephen Merchant

It's a long established tradition in Hollywood that a powerful director does one for them and then one for him/herself, and this is Taika Waititi's one for himself after delivering superhero sized box office for Marvel.

Based on a short story that apparently has no comic elements, it's also the only time you're ever likely to see a guy of indigenous New Zealand ancestry playing Adolf Hitler.

Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) is a 10 year old boy living in Germany who's devoted to Naziism. He's bought into the mythologies and propaganda, aspires to be one of the Hitler Youth, and is so fanatical about it Hitler himself (Waititi) is his imaginary friend, erstwhile conscience and confidante.

But while away at a kind of Nazi kids' camp overseen by embittered officer Kelzendorf (Sam Rockwell, being as Sam Rockwell-y as you've ever seen him), two formative things happen to Jojo. First, he's injured and scarred in a mortar accident. Second, even though the other kids at the camp call him Jojo Rabbit as an allusion to his being afraid (something that, as a good Nazi, he rails against), his personal Hitler actually convinces him it's a mark of honour, the rabbit being a wily and clever animal that uses its brains to outwit its many predators.

Jojo is sent home to recuperate under the care of his loving, spiky and beautifully acerbic mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson), and while there makes a horrifying discovery behind a secret door in an upstairs room. His mother has taken in Elsa (Thomason McKenzie), a young Jewish girl and former friend of Jojo's sister, who's died.

Jojo is terrified, having grown up believing Jews have horns, can control you with their minds and will stop at nothing to pollute Aryan bloodlines in their pursuit of global domination. But he's equally drawn to Elsa as he is scared of her, visiting her to talk, ostensibly to write a book about how insidious the Jewish threat is to German society (and with the older and wilier Elsa buying into it fully for his benefit), but finding himself befriending her despite himself.

On one hand he has his imaginary friend trying to put him back on the straight and narrow and on the other, has his creeping suspicion Elsa isn't going to kill he and his mother and dance around a fire while smeared with their blood.

And all the while, hardly known to us since everything we see is through Jojo's eyes, his mother is a secret objector, wanting the war to be over and the world returned to beauty and normality where lovers can dance and kids can play and her husband, away at war in France, will be returned to her.

It will lead to the most brutal shot in the movie, one that produced an audible gasp from me because I was so unprepared for the horror of it, and it reveals something interesting about the balance Waititi (from his own script) was aiming for. Plenty of other films have tried to strike a balance between horror and comedy and far more than Jojo Rabbit have failed.

When the story reaches such a shocking turning point I actually wondered if Waititi had gone too far, despite how successfully the movie had blended tones until that point. But that's going to be a matter of very personal taste to the viewer.

Almost every scene contains and is portrayed according to Jojo's point of view, so it takes a very child's eye view of the world, making it a pretty deft trick of directing that reminded me of other films like What Maisie Knew or Room. There is horror in the world or Nazi-era Germany, but for most of the story Waititi shows us only the simplest, often funny side of what a 10 year old kid would think of it.

Whether it manages the tonal dance it's going for, it's certainly something you've never seen before and in an industry that continues to churn out the bland and mundane far too often, that should always be celebrated.

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