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Quirky, frequently funny and wearing its heart on its sleeve, Jojo Rabbit earned a number of fans upon its release last fall, with many claiming it as their favorite film of the year. While I enjoyed writer/producer/director Taika Waititi's dramatic farce, it did not quite bowl me over as it did some. Making fun of Nazis on film is nothing new, and Mel Brooks' The Producers, is one of my favorite comedies. Waititi's film follows a young German boy, Johannes "Jojo" Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis), toward the end of World War II as he prepares to join the Deutsches Jungvolk (aka the Hitler Youth). Jojo is a ball of nerves and turns to his imaginary friend, an exaggerated Adolf Hitler (Waititi, pulling quadruple duty), for advice. This plot device is likely to raise a few eyebrows, but, as The Producers did with "Springtime for Hitler," this is all in good fun. The satirical elements of Jojo Rabbit work best, and the film stalls in sentimentality a bit after Jojo encounters a young Jewish girl, Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), hiding in his attic. The film's universal truth that being kind to others is always preferable to treating them with hatred and fear is especially relevant in these curious times, and Jojo Rabbit benefits from the energetic performance of its young star.
The film opens with heavy satire, as young Jojo attends a Hitler Youth training camp with his buddy Yorki (Archie Yates) and is supervised by Capt. Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell). After receiving his duty knife, Jojo is ordered by some of the older boys to kill a rabbit. When he refuses, he earns the taunting name "Jojo Rabbit" and flees as the boys break the animal's neck. He encounters a helpful Hitler, who instructs him to buck up, get back to camp and prove his bravery a different way. Jojo decides to toss a hand grenade without permission and, when it bounces off a nearby tree, the explosion injures Jojo. He returns home to his mother, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson), who suffers repercussions from the Nazi party over the incident. Jojo recovers and works to spread propaganda letters about town as he deals with the recent loss of an older sister to influenza and his absentee father, who is a rumored deserter.
Although Germany's war effort is largely failing, the danger is very real for Elsa, a young Jewish girl who Rosie hides in the attic of her home. When Jojo first meets Elsa, he regards her with fear and asks about hateful stereotypes and myths. Elsa responds with grace, and even convinces a group of Nazi officers that she is Jojo's relative when they unexpectedly drop by the residence. As Jojo continues to mature, thanks in no small part to his tolerant, longsuffering mother, his visions of the buffoonish Hitler dissipate, and Jojo faces the very dangerous and very desperate end of the Nazi war machine. Other faces in Nazi uniform include Rebel Wilson and Alfie Allen, as Nazi soldiers and Hitler Youth instructors alongside Rockwell's captain. That one-eyed character is played broadly and as largely incompetent, and some of Rockwell's scenes feel a bit forced. The film's funniest moments come when Davis and Waititi bond over ludicrous nationalist pride, and this is when Jojo Rabbit is at its biting best.
The Anne Frank-type story of Elsa and Jojo is effective but not especially innovative. The film's best dramatic scenes come from Johansson, who suffers very real consequences for loving and protecting others and attempting to raise a son who will do the same despite the hatred of Hitler and his underlings. The film opens as straight satire, where even Hitler speaks as if the film is set in 2020, and it morphs into both a coming-of-age drama and an interesting look at a frightening world through the eyes of an adolescent boy. I certainly enjoyed Jojo Rabbit, particularly the performances of Davis and Johansson, but it is not among my top films from last year. That said, this is certainly an entertaining interlude for Waititi between his Thor: Ragnarok and its upcoming sequel, Thor: Love and Thunder.
Fox, now under the Disney banner, provides an effective 1.85:1/1080p/AVC-encoded transfer for the film that offers strong fine-object detail, crisp wide shots and splashes of bold color. Skin tones and highlights are natural, and black levels and shadow detail are pleasing. Aside from a few softer shots, the image is crisp and clear throughout. The image looks good in motion, and I noticed only minor aliasing.
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is also effective, with strong element spacing and crystal-clear dialogue. There are not a ton of action effects, but gunfire, an exploding grenade and a few other wartime bursts of chaos rock the subwoofer and pan the surrounds. The anachronistic soundtrack is weighty and balanced appropriately with effects and dialogue, and ambient effects surround and immerse the viewer. English, French and Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital mixes are included, as are English SDH, French and Spanish subtitles.
PACKAGING AND EXTRAS:
This single-disc release includes the Blu-ray and a digital copy code. The disc is packed into an eco-case that is wrapped in a flat slipcover. A couple of decent extras appear: an Audio Commentary by Writer/Producer/Director Taika Waititi; Deleted Scenes (8:57 total/HD); Outtakes (3:26/HD); Theatrical Trailers (3:18 total/HD); and Inside Jojo Rabbit (29:46/HD), a decent making-of featurette.
The director of the delightful Thor: Ragnarok detours into satire with Jojo Rabbit, about a young German boy who finds an imaginary friend in Adolf Hitler as he struggles to survive in a dangerous world at the end of World War II. The satire is often effective, as are scenes with lead Roman Griffin Davis and Scarlett Johansson. Some of the story's other elements are not as memorable, but Jojo Rabbit is an overall entertaining and occasionally moving film. Recommended.
William lives in Burlington, North Carolina, and looks forward to a Friday-afternoon matinee.