Probably one of the riskiest movies of 2019, “Jojo Rabbit”, the latest film by director Taika Waititi, has earned a lot of buzz over the last two months debuting in select theaters in October and finally expanding to wide release in recent weekends. Based on Christine Leunens’s novel “Caging Skies”, “Jojo Rabbit” presents possibly the oddest idea of the year in cinema as Waititi portrays a childish version of Hitler who serves as the imaginary friend of Hitler-era youth Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) who worships the dictator as an idol. However when Jojo discovers that his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) is hiding a Jewish girl names Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) in the walls of their home Jojo comes to a crossroads where his morals and prejudices are challenged at the young age of ten-years-old. Formatted as a black comedy that makes light of the Jews and their infamous leader you would think on the surface that “Jojo Rabbit” treads on some pretty questionable and inappropriate ground, but what we actually get is so much more than you might think. Let’s take a look into what this…strange idea blossoms into in my review of “Jojo Rabbit”.
If you can get past the initial discomfort of watching a film that finds amusement in the use of Nazi propaganda and Hitler’s likeness, what you’ll find is an amazingly creative, fun and insightful feature that is one of the genres best in 2019. Director, writer and star Taika Waititi proved years ago that he was a great filmmaker with the dramady “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” and the best “Thor” movie in the MCU, “Thor Ragnarok”, a film that made my Best of 2017 list. “Jojo Rabbit” is probably the best example of his capable handling of comedy to date taking plenty of risks and landing (mostly) with every shot it takes at not only the Nazis but also the very idea of prejudice and racism as well as cult mentality and youth grooming. “Jojo Rabbit” might seem uncomfortable at first but you quickly come to realize that’s part of its charm. They say comedy is pain plus time so what “Jojo Rabbit” is doing is using the time that has passed since Hitler and the Nazis were in power and showing us not only how ridiculous their ideals were back then but also how insane it is that these ideals and brainwashing methods so essential to the party’s success are somehow just as relatable to today’s culture as they were in World War II. Watching the film is was genuinely disturbing how watching the Nazi’s recruit children felt just like watching any extremist group for any cause win over supporters in today environments using methods of propaganda and demonizing to convince people of their righteousness. By making light of the Nazis and Hitler, Waititi is brilliantly exposing just how ridiculous this hatred was and still is and the extreme lengths that people will go to force conformity to their cause.
This is shown no more perfectly than with the titular character Jojo, played by Roman Griffin Davis, who is a fanatical Hitler Youth who has created an imaginary version of Hitler who he turns to for advice. Jojo earns the nickname of “Rabbit” due to an incident early in the film essential to his character development but its Adolf who convinces him the name is appropriate because of the Rabbit’s resilience and willingness to run when others would rather fight to their own detriment. This comes to describe Jojo more and more over the film especially after he discovers that his loving mother, played with so much charm by Scarlet Johansson, is a sympathetic anti-Nazi who is hiding a Jew named Elsa, played by Thomasin McKenzie. Jojo, realizing exposing his mother could result in death for everyone the same way an uneducated rabbit could kill itself by running into danger. He decides to learn from Elsa and the resulting relationship becomes essential to Jojo’s evolution. It also plays a big role in this movie’s themes. If you look at all the uncomfortable things “Jojo Rabbit” presents including the Nazi brainwashing of youth, the exaggeration used to demonize the Jews, and even Jojo’s use of an imaginary Adolf to work through his feelings, it all lines up with methods used by hate groups today and yet Elsa is no different from Jojo. She’s a person demonized for one aspect of her being and nothing more. So while you’re laughing at the great script and well timed dry and heavy humor you’re also slowly coming to realize just how little we as a species have evolved from World War II to today.
This is all complimented by great performances that completely sell the strange but effective premise. Roman Griffin Davis does a fantastic job projecting both the ignorance and innocence of his titular character in a society grooming him for hatred. His evolution is believable as he begins to form a bond with Thomasin McKenzie’s Elsa and he starts to see the flaws in the Nazi nationalist perspective. McKenzie is also fun to watch in this movie as she throws both subtle and deliberate jabs at Jojo for his arrogance, sometimes playing it for laughs and other times forcing a lesson down Jojo’s throat but at all times providing subtle winks to the audience by showing us a glimpse into how people today can be just as ignorant. Scarlett Johansson is one of the most charming performers in this film as the loving and affectionate mother to Jojo who tries to instill a sense of morality into her young son while director Taika Waititi rounds out the main cast with an amusing caricature of Adolf Hitler further solidifying the director’s penitent for comedy. Other cast members like Rebel Wilson and Sam Rockwell compliment the main cast well making even the secondary characters worth enjoying. Altogether the cast really helps sell this film and they’re all a big part of why this movie works so well in spite of its risky premise.
I know I don’t have a lot here to go off of in my review but to go any further would spoil some of the experience for you , but suffice it to say this is an awesome movie. “Jojo Rabbit” might get some deserving double takes on the surface but once you see the film you begin to realize it’s so much more than just a comedy about Nazis. Using one of modern history’s most notorious hate groups and its infamous leader as the subject of a film about tolerance is actually pretty ingenious when you think about it and for “Jojo Rabbit” the risks pay off as the film conveys its important themes with a lighthearted tone that makes it neither preachy nor understated. It finds the perfect balance between amusement and social commentary showing us just how little we as a people have changed while also allowing us the find a bit of humor in the flaws of humanity. What makes comedy as an idea so great is that it’s meant to allow us to find joy in our misgivings without making us forget why these things are bad in the first place. That exactly what “Jojo Rabbit” does and with that in mind I dare call it one of the most important films of 2019. It might seem like a very odd concept for sure, but Taika Waititi and crew pull it off nicely making “Jojo Rabbit” a must see.