Review Rating: 8/10
Review By: Jonathan W. Hickman
With “Jojo Rabbit,” writer/director Taika Waititi (“Thor: Ragnarok”) trains his acerbic comic lens on war-torn Germany in the early 1940s. Told from the perspective of a 10-year-old boy named Jojo, this schismatic, seriocomic narrative will divide audiences provoking arguments aplenty.
In the waning days of World War II, Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) and his mother, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson), live an anxious life in Nazi Germany. Jojo has joined the Hitler Youth, which requires him to buy, hook-line-and-sinker, into anti-Semitic propaganda. He’s lost his soldier father to the unforgiving battlefield, and his older sister has died.
To make matters worse, the Führer, Adolf Hitler, is Jojo’s imaginary best friend. Whenever the little boy is wavering in support of the Nazi cause, Adolf (played by director Waititi) shows up to set him straight. Hitler is the helpful, zany, devil on his shoulder, always whispering bitter nothings into the impressionable child’s ear. But Jojo’s make-believe pal only looks like the dreaded, murderous leader. Like so much in this imaginative, unique movie, nothing is what it seems.
At a Nazi youth training camp, a reckless hand-grenade accident leaves Jojo scarred and injured. Sent back home to recover, he’s surprised to learn that his mother is hiding a Jewish girl, Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), in the walls of their home. The presence of what he’s been taught to hate under his roof upends Jojo’s entire belief system.
The young man learned about the Jewish people in a vacuum. Jojo’s never knowingly met someone of the Jewish faith. Comically, the script introduces all manner of extreme slurs and stereotypes. It’s darkly funny, but it’s sad, as well.
The steady stream of hateful material comically presented in the film’s first third is polarizing. But “Jojo Rabbit” gives us this offensive material to expose the utter ridiculousness of it. And in exposing evil, the hopeful message of the movie is revealed: good can’t be brainwashed away.
The whimsical story-line walks a tightrope, veering into outright parody, at times. But Johansson’s work as Rosie helps to balance the jokey tone. As her inner torment permeates the household, Rosie tries to positively influence her son without raising the attention of government authorities. If the truth comes out, Rosie would lose her son and likely her head. She swills wine and barks orders, all the while hiding the oppressive fear that neither of them can articulate aloud.
Jojo’s cautious interaction with the mysterious Jewish visitor, Elsa, is the heart of the story. Actress McKenzie was so good in 2018’s excellent “Leave No Trace.” Here, she infuses Elsa with foreknowledge of mounting tragedy, because the little girl has already lived it. At first, Jojo threatens Elsa with his Nazi-training-camp-issued knife, which, to his horror, he’s incapable of wielding expertly. Elsa, knife in hand, slowly wins him over. But from the moment he lays eyes on her, it’s readily apparent that Jojo has a soft spot for this winsome young woman, who is wise beyond her years.
A dark, dark comedy, “Jojo Rabbit” infuriated some critics and enchanted others when it premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this year. The epic rants denouncing the movie signify writer/director Waititi’s brilliantly successful provocation. “Jojo Rabbit” is meant to make you mad, while it, also, touches your heart.
The only way to watch the film, and enjoy it, is to consider its radical approach, diving deep into percipient satire. While comedic depictions of Hitler are nothing new, it’s unique to make history’s most prominent villain a child’s imaginary friend. The biting, uncomfortable humor prepares us for the moment when sobering reality creeps in. It’s a jarring turn as Jojo’s world is torn apart. And the sentimental, if, also, on-nose-close, closing moments hit me hard.
Nazi’s were (and still are) diabolical. Hitler was evil. It’s repulsive and unredeemable to indoctrinate a child into an extreme racist ideology. But a child’s good nature can persevere. Before the point of no return, when innocence is lost, a tender voice of reason can make all the difference. In the end, Elsa has Jojo, and Jojo has Elsa.
A RottenTomatoes.com Tomatometer-approved critic, Jonathan W. Hickman is also an entertainment lawyer, college professor, novelist, and filmmaker. He’s a member of the Atlanta Film Critics Circle, The Southeastern Film Critics Association, and the Georgia Film Critics Association. For more information about Jonathan visit: FilmProductionLaw.com or DailyFIlmFix.com