There is a palpable weight of expectation resting on the shoulders of cult filmmaker Taika Waititi. Thanks largely to a recent winning streak – What We Do in the Shadows, Hunt for the Wilderpeople and Thor: Ragnarok – the Kiwi comic is hot property in Hollywood.
Billed as a black comedy set during the final months of the Second World War, his eagerly anticipated new project, Jojo Rabbit, is carved from Christine Leunens’ bestselling 2004 novel Caging Skies.
It starts with the tug of grey socks and the adjustment of belt, buckle and woggle of 10-year-old Jojo Betzler’s Hitler Youth uniform. Back stiff, face screwed up with intent, words of encouragement are uttered around him with the boisterous energy of a rampant shotgun from Waititi’s somewhat effeminate Adolf Hitler.
“You can heil better than that, man!” he pleads to his young blonde devotee. Hitler isn’t really there, of course – merely the result of Jojo’s overactive imagination. The figmental Führer is his cheerleader, cohort and counsel – the idol who will help Jojo tackle the bullies that plague his childhood. But there’s a problem. Jojo’s eccentric mother, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson), is at odds with her son’s blind loyalty to the cause. Her anti-war disposition turns out not to be an entirely passive one either. Much to Jojo’s dismay, a Jewish teenager is hidden away in their house.
Shot with a gorgeous auburn hue, Jojo Rabbit is a treat to look at and the soundtrack is tastefully put together. The likes of Love’s ‘Everybody’s Gotta Live’ cut particular poignancy when matched with developments in the story. As is usual with Waititi, pathos is mixed with playful and there is a tonal shift here that will remind some of the startling gear-change in Roberto Benigni’s 1997 drama Life is Beautiful.
In terms of comedy, however, Waititi hasn’t struck a particularly caustic vein this time around. The chortle counter still racks up impressive numbers, but thanks largely to a stellar cast. Stephen Merchant’s Gestapo officer is one such example, as is Sam Rockwell as a luckless soldier repeatedly demoted through the ranks. Waititi’s hapless Hitler is not unlike Eric Cantona in Ken Loach’s Looking for Eric or Serge Gainsbourg’s surreal alter-ego ‘the Mug’ in the biopic Gainsbourg.
Whilst a broadly affable, twinkly-eyed atmosphere coats proceedings, the narrative’s central arc charts a course that is disappointingly predictable. It is out of necessity that Waititi relies on chutzpah and charm to get us through. Thankfully, the witty script has more than enough of both to ensure that any time momentum starts to waver, a zippy one-liner pours life back into the picture.
Fans of Waititi’s whimsy will find much to admire in Jojo Rabbit – yet another mirth-inducing concoction that keeps the filmmaker’s career on an upward trajectory. How long can he keep it going?