Writer/director Taika Waititi has played a vampire, an intergalactic rock monster, and now perhaps the most challenging role of his career, Adolf Hitler. Coming off his meteoric success with the MCU, Waititi is using the time in between mega-budget Thor sequels to write/direct/produce/co-star in a smaller daring indie comedy. Jojo Rabbit follows a young German boy, Jojo (Roman Griffin Dais), during the last year of World War Two. He fantasizes about having an imaginary Hitler (Waititi) as the voice over his shoulder, reinforcing the teachings of adults and authority figures. His worldview is challenged when he discovers a teenager hiding in the family’s walls who just happens to be Jewish. Jojo doesn’t know what to make of Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), nor does she know what to make of him, and Jojo decides to keep her presence a secret to spare his doting and put-upon mother (Scarlet Johansson). Jojo tries interrogating this wily girl but ends up learning more than he ever imagined.
Given the subject matter, setting, and overall tone, it’s a wonder how well Jojo Rabbit works. I was worried about what kind of tone the movie would be striving for given the delicacy of its subject matter, not that other filmmakers have shied away from incorporating comedy into Holocaust settings. I don’t mean this to be overly flippant but for portions of the movie I felt like I was watching “Wes Anderson’s Nazi Germany.” The entire Act One camp sequence feels like a warped deleted scene from Moonrise Kingdom. I was genuinely surprised how often I was laughing with Jojo Rabbit. Waititi can be hysterical as a bratty, temperamental version of the Fuhrer, but there are moments where he gets caught up in the oratory of his hateful rhetoric that serve as a reminder that even for Jojo, he realizes this man isn’t exactly best friend material. The Hitler imaginary friend goes away for long stretches in the second half as the film emphasizes more drama, which is the right choice as Jojo is coming to doubt what he has been taught from that imaginary friend. The portrayal of Hitler might be offensive to some viewers but I feel like Waititi walks a fine line to root it from the perspective of childhood fantasy. It’s taking the figure on TV and adapting it to suit the needs of a lonely kid wanting to belong. Of course he’d want Hitler to select him as the best little young Aryan that Germany has going. It’s not dismissing the evil of the man but instead serving him up through a specific prism that allows laughter not necessarily even at Hitler himself but at a youthful and immature understanding of something far more complex.
I was also worried that the comedy might dampen some of the more dramatic turns coming, and this was so not the case. There are dramatic moments hiding under the surface thanks to seeing them from Jojo’s naïve perspective, but then there also big obvious dramatic moments of suffering that hit. As much as the whimsy prevails early, the dramatic moments are delivered in tasteful ways that do not detract from the feelings being felt by the characters as well as the willing viewers. There are a few gut punches that remind you that even with the whimsy of childhood naivete, real people are dying in awful ways because of those complicit in racist genocidal policies. The relationship between Jojo and his mother is the second most significant one, after he and Elsa, but it’s this central focus where we see the starting point of his character arc. His mother tries to shield her child from the larger terrors of their society but that’s increasingly difficult when people are being hanged in the street for helping Jews. She’s hoping to simply play her part in public, get through this terrible time, and finally have the son back that she knows, hoping he will eventually shake free from the propaganda. It’s a role that requires Johansson to play like another cartoonish adult, all bubbling energy and quirky nonchalance, while burying her increasing concern. Part of me almost wishes that she was a co-equal protagonist so we could get an even richer perspective to contrast more fully.
There’s a sprightly whimsy to the proceedings that comes from being locked into the perspective of an imaginative child. It’s not that the world is 100 percent his vision, it’s more that we know that the representation of what we’re seeing might not be a completely objective reflection of the reality Jojo is encountering. This especially includes the portrayal of many adults involved in various levels of the Nazi party. They play out like cartoons and buffoons but are still dangerous cartoons and buffoons. When Jojo’s childhood friend Yorki is talking about fighting on the front and we see him handling a rocket launcher, this is clearly an exaggeration of the desperation of the moment and a young boy’s eagerness to be involved. This creative approach allows Waititi to dabble in the fantastic and keep his audience alert, allowing them to second-guess what we’re seeing on screen and look for the reality in hiding. I laughed pretty consistently at the intended humor and incredulous nature of the adults trying to pass off wrongheaded insights and suggestions as scientific fact or common sense. It’s a movie where you laugh at the ridiculous idiots while hoping that the idiots won’t get the people we care about killed.
The acting is very strong overall. Newcomer Roman Griffin Davis is exuberant and relatable without coming across as overly cloying or mannered, which can be a rarity for child actors. He has a very difficult role to play from a tone and perspective standpoint, and he succeeds. Another great child actor is Thomasin McKenzie (Leave No Trace) as Elsa, a young girl in an extremely vulnerable position who looks upon this new boy with equal amounts fear, disdain, and pity. She cannot be herself and must choose her words and responses carefully, so it’s a guarded performance of restraint but McKenzie is fabulous in quieter, subtler shifts. The adults are all enjoyable as broadly comical cartoons, with Stephen Merchant (Logan) earning considerable unease as an S.S. officer leading a team sweeping for Jews in hiding. Johansson (Avengers: Endgame) seems a little too eager, a little too antic, but this may pertain to her character’s nerves and desperation, trying to overcompensate her anxiety. Rockwell (Vice) gets the biggest adult role as a disenchanted military vet who sees the writing on the wall. At first his detached nihilism is a source of dark comedy and later he becomes an unexpected father figure for Jojo. I don’t quite know if his hero moments have the desired impact but he’s still an amusing presence.
However, there are also some drawbacks to being a fable, namely a lack of larger specific substance beyond general lessons and general characterization. Jojo Rabbit is being billed as an “anti-hate satire” and I definitely think that summary fits the intent, but “anti-hate” sounds like such a nebulous buzzword that seems more meaningful at first glance and less upon reflection. I would assume every responsible story set during the era of the Holocaust would adopt an “anti-hate” sensibility, because the alternative would be championing the foundations of Nazism. It’s hard for me to imagine any movie desiring a public release being anything other than “anti-hate.” Essentially, we have a character coming to see through the propaganda of the era, judging people as people rather than scary caricatures, and start to reject the teachings of manipulative authority figures. This isn’t a new formula for coming-of-age stories or tales set during times of great strife. It’s a lesson in empathy and rejecting dogma on its face. When it comes to Nazism, that should be the easy part, facilitated by any prolonged exposure to anyone previously deemed an undesirable.
My nagging issue with Jojo Rabbit is that for all its impish whimsy with such a serious historical subject, it ultimately plays things pretty safe. That’s fine, it doesn’t have to a revolutionary film, but it does dull the message a bit when the ultimate lasting takeaway is “hate is bad, Jews are people too.” It’s a bit pat, a bit simple, and a bit too easy. The characterization can also be hampered by this same ethos. The characters are pretty much exactly what you see at first blush. The only character who changes or has room to explore is Jojo. Even Elsie feels more like a stagnant person despite her unique circumstances. This may be because she’s more change agent than character, a figure for Jojo to be horrified by, then entranced with, and finally see as a friend. I still felt moments of genuine emotion for characters onscreen and for Jojo’s journey of self. The movie still works well with its stated goals and direction, it’s just a bit limited because of the simplicity of its message and the lack of greater substance for its many characters.
The Jojo Rabbit novel was written before the rise of Donald Trump but Waititi has said that when they were filming that America’s current political climate was on his mind, and it’s not hard to make a few adaptations to apply this for the modern era. Perhaps a young boy sees Donald Trump as his imaginary friend and together they’re both all-in on trying to “make America great again” by first and foremost reporting any immigrant they see as illegal. Then later in the story he discovers his family is willfully hiding an undocumented child from being deported after they were stripped from their parents who were then deported. Now our naïve protagonist must reconcile the harsh rhetoric he has been taught with the growing empathy of connecting with another human being who doesn’t seem as dangerous or as sub-human as others claim. If you wanted to even make this parallel, it’s there, though I think that diminishes the setting. We shouldn’t need to tell movies during the Holocaust as metaphors for our modern struggles. I suppose this is another scenario where if you want to Inuit more of a relevant modern message, you can.
Jojo Rabbit (a nickname that seems forgotten after its christening) is a coming-of-age fable with equal parts charm and horror. Waititi takes a serious subject and doesn’t mitigate the evils of Nazism with his portrayal of a daffy imaginary Hitler. The production has an admirable swagger to it as it charts its own course, tackling serious subjects and young whimsy to portray a poignant story about childhood, loss, and growing up. It’s an amusing and heartfelt enterprise that I can’t help but feel could have done more than settling for some pretty safe messages and limited characterization. There wasn’t a moment with Jojo Rabbit where I wasn’t entertained, but I do wish the movie had more on its mind that reminding everyone that hate is bad.
Nate’s Grade: B
With the continued runaway success of the box-office juggernaut that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), it becomes more and more preposterous just how strange and unique it can be. You would think a mega franchise this valuable would be more prone to playing it safe, hiring established visual stylists who can produce product. Instead, the MCU finds interesting creative voices that can succeed within their very big sandbox. Enter New Zealand actor and quirky director Taika Waititi (What We Do in the Shadows), one of the most surprising directorial hires in a decade of blockbusters. The Thor movies are generally considered some of the weakest films in the MCU, so there’s already plenty of room for improvement. With Waititi, Thor: Ragnarok is easily the best Thor movie and one of the funniest to date for the MCU. It’s finally a Thor movie that embraces its silly, campy, ridiculous world and finds space to cram in more eccentricity.
Thor (Chris Hemsworth) has returned to his home world of Asgard to find it in great peril. His brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) has been ruling in their father’s stead, and that’s not even the worst part. Thor’s heretofore-unannounced older sister Hera (Cate Blanchett) has been unleashed from her prison and is seeking the throne she feels is rightfully hers. She is the goddess of death and chafes at Asgard’s revisionist history, trying to paint over its history as conquerors for something kinder and gentler. Thor is banished to an outlying planet, Sakaar, that’s essentially a junkyard for the universe. He’s captured by Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) and sold to fight in the Grandmaster’s (Jeff Goldblum) arena. Thor is trained to fight in gladiatorial combat, and his opponent and reigning champion is none other than the Hulk a.k.a. Bruce Banner’s (Mark Ruffalo) alter ego. Thor must break free, convince the Hulk for help, get off this planet, and save Asgard before it’s too late.
Waititi has acclimated himself extremely well in the large-scaled world of blockbuster filmmaking, and yet his signature quirky sense of style and humor are still evident throughout, making Ragnarok the best Thor film. Let’s face it, the Thor films are completely ridiculous and trying to treat them as anything but is wasted effort. These movies involve alien Norse gods traveling by rainbow bridges and even though they can traverse the cosmos in spaceships they still sling giant broad swords. The more the films embrace the inherent silliness of the series the better. Ragnarok is the Thor movie that gets all the serious stuff out of the way in the first act, tying up loose ends from 2013’s Dark World, checking in with Anthony Hopkins’ Odin and the requisite MCU cameo (a superfluous Doctor Strange), and then introducing Thor’s long-lost twisted sister. From Blanchett’s intro, the movie becomes what it was set out to be, a lavish and consistently funny buddy comedy. Gone are all the Earthly constraints from the prior two films. It’s all aliens from here on out. Thor has everything stripped from him, his hammer, his family, his hair, and becomes an underdog once again. It’s a surefire way to make a living god more relatable. Fighting from the ground up, Thor makes all sorts of new friends and enemies, and it’s this evolution into an ensemble comedy where Waititi’s film shines. There’s a jovial touch to the world building that extends from the visuals to the variety of odd characters. Thor has never been more entertaining as Hemsworth (Ghostbusters) is able to stop being so serious and embrace his underutilized comedic chops. The man has a stunning sense of comedic delivery and a dry wit that’s right at home for Waititi. Hemsworth and his daffy sense of humor have never been better in the MCU.
Even with the added comic refinery, Thor is still the most boring of the Avengers, so Ragnarok solves this by introducing a new bevy of side characters that steal the show. The wacky world of the Thor universe was always its best aspect, and each new film pushes the boundaries a little further out, revealing more weird and wild planets and creatures. It feels like a Star Wars where we spend our time with the weird, scuzzy part of the universe. Ragnarok pushes those boundaries the furthest yet and introduces an entire cadre of loveable supporting players that you want to spend more time with. Tessa Thompson has a wonderful and intimidating introduction as she swoops in on a spaceship, makes her badass claim of her prized bounty, and then trips and falls, as she is quite tipsy from drinking. She regains her literal footing and still seems a bit out of it, but the ensuring process she goes through to claim what is hers is thoroughly impressive. As a Valkyrie, this is one tough woman, and Thompson (Creed) has great fun playing bad. She really reminded me of a female Han Solo. Thompson has a wily screwball chemistry with Hemsworth, and both actors elevate the other with lively give-and-take. Thompson is a terrific new addition. She has an enticing, irascible appeal without overt sexualization that sometimes befalls the Marvel female sidekicks (Black Widow, Pepper Potts).
Another character you’ll fall in love with is Korg, a rock monster gladiator played in motion-capture and drolly voiced by director Waititi himself. My question: is it possible for a director to steal his own movie? This is a character that feels stripped from one of Waititi’s dry, absurdist comedies and placed into the MCU. Korg is a would-be revolutionary but really he’s a joke machine and just about every line is gold. By the end of the movie, I needed a Korg spin-off series to further explore this unusual character.
The requisite villains of the film definitely play their roles to full camp, enjoying every moment. Blanchett (Carol) is like a Gothic Joan Crawford, marching with a slinky step and a sneer. Her multi-antler helmet completes the operatic sweep of the character. You’ll forgive me for my above comment on recognizing female characters independent of their sexuality, but man oh man does Goth Blanchett make me happy (especially with her hair down). It’s a shame that the movie doesn’t really know what to do with Hela though. Every time we cut back to her I found myself getting somewhat impatient. I wanted to return back to the weird and wild world Thor was on. Blanchett is entertaining but her character can’t help but feel a bit shoehorned in (“Hey, you had a long-lost sister, and oh by the way, she’s basically Death itself, and she’s coming by to retake everything, so have fun with that and sorry for the short notice”). Goldblum (Independence Day: Resurgence) is left to his Goldblum devices and it’s everything you would want. His signature stuttering deadpan is just as potent in the MCU, and the film finds strange little asides for him to make him even more entertaining. Karl Urban (Star Trek Beyond) has a plum role as Hela’s second-in-command who doesn’t really want the job. They actually gave this guy a character arc. It’s simple, sure, but it was more than I was expecting.
Ragnarok is a swan dive into a stylized, candy-colored explosion of 80s album covers come alive. The visuals and action feel inspired as much from the art of Jack Kirby as they do the pages of Heavy Metal. The overwhelming feel is one of irresistible fun, something you lean back, soak up, and smile from ear to ear in between handfuls of popcorn. The final battle feels suitably climactic and revisits Led Zeppelin’s immortal “Immigrant Song” once the action peaks, coalescing into a crescendo of cool. The trinkly 80s synth score from Mark Mothersbaugh (The Lego Movie) is fantastic and helps to achieve an extra kitschy kick. This movie is just flat-out fun throughout. It finds fun things for the characters to do, like when Banner has to not Hulk out on an alien world filled with stressors to trigger such an occurrence. That sequence almost feels like the grown-up, polished version of Adam West desperately running around as TV’s Batman in need of trying to find a place to dispose of a lit bomb. There’s an archness to the action and character interactions that is playful without being obnoxiously glib. I also enjoyed a climax that involved more than just out-punching the villains. Some might even charitably read it as a commentary on the over reliance of apocalyptic grandeur.
Playing from behind because of its hero’s limitations, Thor: Ragnarok finally embraces the silliness of its franchise, opening up more comic channels and vastly improving its entertainment quotient. The weird word and its collection of odd and oddly compelling characters is the best feature, and though it takes Ragnarok a bit of time for house cleaning, it becomes a steadily amusing big-budget blockbuster that maintains a cracked and lively sense of humor. It’s allowed to be strange and silly and campy. Waititi’s imaginative voice is still very present throughout the film, pushing the movie into fun and funny directions while still delivering the sci-fi action spectacle we’ve come to expect from the MCU. Ragnarok isn’t as deep as Civil War, as perfectly structured as Homecoming, or as subversive and different as Guardians of the Galaxy, but with a droll creative mind like Waititi, it becomes about the best possible Thor movie it can be.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Hal Jordan (Ryan Reynolds) is a cocky pilot working for his ex-girlfriend, Carol Ferris (Blake Lively). Hal never takes anything too seriously and seems to freeze up in moments, recalling his own father’s crash. Then one day a purple alien crash-lands on Earth and seeks a replacement. This alien belongs to the Lantern Corps, a group of intergalactic policemen for the universe. He was mortally wounded by Parallax, a creature that grows stronger on fear but looks like a big rain cloud. The alien’s ring chooses Jordan as the replacement. Next thing you know, the guy is training on the alien world Oa and meeting lantern officers from all over the universe led by Sinestro (Mark Strong). Jordan is unsure of his heroic destiny, though we are reminded many times “the ring does not make mistakes.” In the meantime, Hector Hammond (Peter Sarsgaard) is dissecting the dead purple alien and gets infected with the fear cloud/Parallax. He lashes out at his father (Tim Robbins), at Jordan, and signals to the giant evil rain cloud that Earth is an all-you-can-eat fear buffet ready for the binging.
For starters, he power is a bit silly and hard to explain. I fall in with the majority of the public when I say, “Green Lantern who?” So the guy’s super duper power is to channel his imagination into green-tinted reality? It’s a bit vague and hard to quantify. So when a helicopter is falling to earth, instead of, say, picking it up or steadying it, Jordan creates a green Hot Wheels racetrack for it to zoom around to a stop. When the evil rain cloud fires its energy projectile, Jordan conjures a catapult to catch the projectile and fire it back. And of course at some point he materializes a green gun to use in combat. I’m sorry but for me this just seems silly. It’s one thing to say, “His strength is the power of his imagination,” and I can see where young kids would gravitate to this stuff, but when it’s realized on the big screen is seems infantile. What are the rules here exactly? It just seems dumb. I can better accept a magic ring that allows Jordan to fly or shoot sparkly lasers. If a healthy imagination is key, then the rings should be choosing some of the world’s greatest living authors and artists. Can you imagine Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich) with a lantern ring, or Neil Gaiman (Sandman)? Surely those guys would come up with something more interesting than catapults and racetracks. But you see, the rings, and the lantern world itself, runs on the power of will. Will power is their energy resource (talk about going green). The enemy, the cosmic rain cloud, runs on the power of fear, which is represented by yellow energy. What are the other colors of the rainbow? Is the power of love red? Is the power of envy a darker green? Is orange the color of hunger? Is brown the color of painful bowel movements? Is the power of apathy… forget it.
The biggest misstep is all the time the screenplay squanders on boring old Earth. Just like Thor, the alien worlds are the best part of the movie. But in Green Lantern, we see the training home world (Oa) and the thousands of weird, fun-looking aliens staffed to police the universe. We get a taste of the lantern life and the heavy responsibilities. We get a sense of the powers. And… then… Hal… quits. He up and quits. He says, after about five minutes of training, “You got the wrong guy,” and we head back to Earth. What the hell? We then get to spend the majority of Act II with this guy moping over whether he should or shouldn’t be a superhero. Memo to Hollywood: no one spends this kind of money on a movie where the main character can’t be bothered to accept being a hero with amazing super powers. I can’t be bothered with a hero who can’t be bothered. The screenplay structure should have been: Act I spent on Earth, Act II spent on Oa and in space, Act III return to Earth to save the day. Instead we get about ten minutes spent on Oa. And while I’m on the subject, whenever we see this alien planet it’s like a non-stop Green Lantern convention (does Oa host other conventions? Is next week the semi-annual gathering of amateur ornithologists?), so who is left policing the universe? I understand that a majority of the universe is empty space, but if the lanterns keep getting together for pep rallies on Oa, what’s to stop a universe full of criminals from stealing everybody’s car stereos? Also, lanterns intervene in the universe when evil is afoot, but nobody seemed to give a damn about planet Earth until we got lantern representation with Hal Jordan.
So the bad guy here is a semi-formless rain cloud with a head that sucks people’s fear. It feeds on fear. That is its energy source (get a job in the media, son). Like much else in the film, the rules concerning the villain are never fully explained. At times, this rain cloud thing seems invincible. Most of the time it’s never explained what exactly this thing could do. See, if you explain things then you box in your characters. So if you don’t establish rules for your villain, your heroes, their respective powers, the history of the universe, etc., then they are limitless. It also means that everything onscreen lacks any sort of logic, internal or otherwise. So the villain is really just a fuzzy concept of fear. Hal Jordan and the lanterns have nothing to fear but fear itself. That means that the screenplay falls prey to a plethora of hackneyed messages that feel ripped out of some Saturday morning cartoon series. Everyone feels fear. Accept your fear. Courage means rising above. It’s the same patter that’s been rehashed for hundreds of episodes of people in tights teaching schoolchildren it’s okay (take a drink every time a character utters the word “afraid” or “fear”). The simplistic moralizing on fear and courage made me yearn for a ring so that I could imagine a better villain. Lastly, there’s a scene where our dastardly cosmic rain cloud descends to Earth and starts sucking away people’s fear/energy/souls. There’s a shot of a school bus screeching to a halt and children dashing away. I imagine children’s fears are more heightened since their healthy imaginations and lack of world experience would exaggerate scary things that adults would try and simply deny. Their fear has to be like a delicacy. I guess what I’m getting at is, if I were a giant space cloud that fed on people’s fears, I’d go for the children first.
Director Martin Campbell has crafted some truly spellbinding, breathless action sequences in movies like Goldeneye and Casino Royale, but you can tell that he seems to be straining against the onslaught of computer effects. Campbell is more at home with the open world of practical effects and the tangible. Being confined to the realm of green screen and CGI seems like a shackle for this guy’s own imagination. He constructs solid action sequences, admittedly, but nothing worth bearing the name of Campbell. It’s a special effects bonanza without a hint of realism, like a computer start vomiting onto the screen. It feels weightless and formless, like a giant evil rain cloud. The film reportedly cost over $200 million, which is a high figure for a movie that spends so much freaking time on Earth! Here’s an example of a costly filmmaking expenditure – the suit. Hal Jordan has a skin-tight green suit that is complete a computer effect. That means that every second Reynolds is seen onscreen in his signature outfit, it’s another effect that people labored over for months. Why? I’m pretty sure that in this day and age we have the technology for clothing. Campbell succumbs to the limitations of the material and Green Lantern ends up feeling more like a TV pilot with a runaway budget than the beginning of an epic franchise for its parent company.
Reynolds (The Proposal) is an extremely likable actor whose biggest drawback is that he rarely seems serious, last year’s Buried a notable exception. He’s got this carefree attitude, practically bobbing his head and winking to the audience, and you like the guy even when he’s being a cad or a wimp. His character’s arc is supposed to be the guy who accepts responsibility, learns to accept and move beyond his fears, and it’s a character track that has been long journeyed and will continue to be. It makes for a simplistic hero’s journey storyline that seems to do the least work necessary to move things along. The movie did not fail on Reynolds’ shoulders; you can blame the four screenwriters and a ballooning budget for that one. Lively showed that she really could act in The Town. She shows no proof of this ability in Green Lantern. She speaks every line in a flat, monotone delivery, so much so you start to think she has like an inner-ear infection and can’t hear her own modulation. Her character is the weak love interest/damsel in distress role that regularly peoples these kinds of movies. Her monotone delivery does nothing for the lukewarm chemistry between her and Reynolds. Only Sarsgaard (An Education, Orphan) comes away mostly unscathed. His underwritten villainous character undergoes a monstrous transformation that would elicit sympathy from the Elephant Man.
Green Lantern is a movie that will thrill twelve-year-old boys and few others. It’s full of special effects, noise, and little clarity or wit. It’s not even a particularly fun movie. It repeatedly tells the audience things it should be showing, and it can’t help showing the audience character points (like Hal’s dead dad) that could have been handled with smoother nuance. The movie never feels like it can trust its audience for anything subtle. This is the kind of movie that needs to spell out everything. Green Lantern is muddled, tonally disjointed, the rules are not established, the villain is abstract, the messages are simplistic, the powers are ill-defined and also silly, the action is lackluster and overly dependent on often needless CGI, and the hero can’t even be bothered to accept his super powers. Apparently Green Lantern has about 60 years of comic history and a rich sci-fi universe, and this is the best four screenwriters could come up with? This is the best stuff they pulled from? Green Lantern is a movie that feels dimmed from start to finish.
Nate’s Grade: C