JOJO RABBIT

Taika Waititi is definitely one of the more interesting filmmakers working today. On the surface, his movies seem pretty standard, but he has a certain wit and sarcasm to his material that he competently melds with drama and characterization. The Hunt for the Wilderpeople was one of my favorite films of 2016 strictly for those reasons. It’s a hysterical film, but it also has so much heart when it comes to the relationship between the main characters. He wants to make us laugh, but also wants to make us emotionally invested, and even think a little bit. 
 
Johannes “Jojo” Beltzer (Roman Griffin Davis) is 10-year-old boy living in Nazi Germany, ready to serve the Hitler Youth. When he arrives at camp, he’s ordered to a kill a rabbit, but refuses to do so, giving him the name derisive nickname Jojo Rabbit. Jojo gets injured in an accident and is forced to leave the Hitler Youth camp and stay home with his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson). It’s not just them in the house, though, as Jojo finds out that his mother is hiding Jewish teenager Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) from the Third Reich. Convinced he has a demon in their midst, Jojo interrogates Elsa about what Jews are really all about in order to understand them more. However, his imaginary friend, a goofy and idiotic version of Adolph Hitler (Taika Waititi) doesn’t agree and thinks Elsa should be given to the authorities, causing Jojo to choose question his own morals and logic. 
 
A member of the Hitler Youth who has Hitler as an imaginary friend seems like the kind of idea that only Waititi could think of. It’s absolutely bizarre, especially since it’s based on such atrocious real-life events. This isn’t really about the atrocities committed by Nazi Germany, though. It’s all about Jojo’s growth as a character. Like many Aryan German children during that time, he’s brainwashed by all of the Nazi propaganda and ready to fight for the cause. This was advertised as “An Anti-Hate Satire” and Waititi mostly accomplishes this well, even if the satire feels a bit thin and surface level. Jojo’s character is a great parable to modern children and teenagers having their minds warped by the internet and certain demagogues. Like these people nowadays, Jojo has no real parental guidance and friendships, which only reinforces his worldview. It’s not until he meets Elsa where he realizes she’s a human being just like him, but that does take time. Since he has a Jew in his midst, Jojo interrogates Elsa about the demonic shapeshifting abilities and other superpowers that Jews have, which Elsa playfully plays along with. It’s a fun way to poke fun at anti-Semites and their absurd stereotypes, while also building the characters. This middle portion of the film does drag, though, as it gets very repetitive with scene after scene of Jojo interrogating Elsa. The character building was and the performances helped keep it afloat. 
 
As Jojo and Elsa’s relationship develop, Jojo’s relationship to Adolph begins to fall apart as he sees past everything he’s been taught. Waititi is absolutely hilarious as Adolph, but becomes more and more threatening as Jojo opens his mind. It’s still hilarious to see a child have Hitler as an imaginary friend, but it’s a very effective way of showing Jojo shedding his old points of view. His mother Rosie is also instrumental in his transformation, as he learns to be far more compassionate and open minded. They have a very sweet relationship that feels genuine. Jojo’s father is away fighting in the war (or possibly dead), so the way they both cope with it felt like a natural mother-son relationship. It’s a shame Johansson’s accent wasn’t consistent, because other than that, she’s not too bad. I was especially impressed with Roman Griffin Davis as Jojo in his acting debut. Unlike many child actors, he’s not wooden and he hits all of the right emotional beats, whether it’s grief, wonder, laughter, or curiosity. He has fantastic chemistry with the rest of the cast, especially with Thomasin McKenzie. You can sense an honest friendship building up, where they both learn from each other and end up better people for it. It’s a terrific allegory for how if we just talk to each other, we may find common ground, change a mind, and move forward. 
 
This isn’t one of the World War II films that treats the Nazis as evil villains without depth. The Nazis here have a lot of humanity, but that doesn’t mean they’re good people. Waititi knows that, but when you’re exploring their worldview, they’re bound to be developed and feel like real people, which they were. Of course, they are treated like comical, ignorant fools, but there’s a lot more thought put into it than most filmmakers probably would. Every character has a satisfying arc in their own way, even if their end is tragic. This is PG-13, so you won’t be getting any exploding bodies or people being tortured. It all occurs off screen, with only explosions making debris fly around. Even without blood, the singular battle sequence when Germany is on the brink of losing is incredibly tense, a big part being that you actually care about the characters. Every dramatic and comedic bit hit perfectly, which is in part to Waititi’s direction. He frames characters in deliberate ways to foreshadow what’s happening and it doesn’t click until the moment happens, where it has maximum emotional impact. However, this is a comedy first and foremost, and it’s consistently hilarious, mostly thanks to Waititi’s gutbusting performance as Adolph. You can tell he really relished in the role and enjoyed being a Jewish man who’s portraying history’s greatest villain, while making him a complete buffoon. This is a film about WWII, so you definitely have to have drama, but when you’re also going for comedic satire, you can’t let the comedy undercut it, nor let the drama overshadow the comedy.
 
On paper, Jojo Rabbit is a concept that seems like it would never work at all, but just like any crazy idea, you just need the right person to tackle it. With Waititi’s sharp wit, cynical satire, and strong handle on dramatic storytelling, Jojo Rabbit is a ludicrous sounding idea that totally pays off. The satire and themes surrounding it aren’t the deepest, but it’s still the a more than suitable satire for today’s age, not just because of relevance, but because of intelligence. It treats the Nazis like they’re absolutely insane, evil fools who can’t be reckoned with, but hey, insane, evil fools are people too and deserve to be analyzed as such… and so do all of those alt-right trolls on the internet and the Neo-Nazis out there. 
 
But once you understand them and they still end up being bigoted assholes, then make fun of them and shame them all day. It’s exactly what Hitler wouldn’t have wanted. 
 
8.5/10 

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