I think everyone gets nervous when they hear about someone making a comedy film that pokes fun at the Nazis. And people get nervous for various reasons. Will the humor make light of an obviously horrifying time in history? I mean, how do you balance the humor with the seriousness of that time?
Writer/director Taika Waititi announced this film, Jojo Rabbit, and said he would be playing a boy’s imaginary friend, Adolf Hitler. Okaaaay….the ante is officially upped. Waititi basically challenged himself to make a film that could be REALLY hard to pull off.
And yet, he did it.
Taika Waititi (Thor: Ragnarok, Hunt for the Wilderpeople), brings his signature style of humor and pathos to his latest film, Jojo Rabbit, a World War II satire that follows a lonely German boy (Roman Griffin Davis as JoJo) whose world view is turned upside down when he discovers his single mother (Scarlett Johansson) is hiding a young Jewish girl (Thomasin McKenzie) in their attic. Aided only by his idiotic imaginary friend, Adolf Hitler (Taika Waititi), Jojo must confront his blind nationalism.
Sure, it’s easy to lampoon the Nazi’s. Charlie Chaplin did it, Ernst Lubitsch did it; Hell, Mel Brooks did it. But when you want to do that while showing the audience that you acknowledge the horrors that came with the Third Reich, AND you want to tell a sort of coming of age tale on top of it all? Tall order, for sure.
But, Taika Waititi has made a strangely endearing dark comedy about a little German boy, Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) growing up in the 1940’s, late in WWII. Jojo loves his country, and its’ leader – so much so that his imaginary friend is actually Adolf Hitler, played by an alternatingly wacky and frightening Taika Waititi, whom Jojo consults when he needs a friend, or some form of advice.
Waititi plays Hitler like a surfer pal (“Heil me, bro!”) with the occasional moment of scary Fuhrer realness. He does, however, provide many of the laughs in the film. But don’t think this is a film about a boy and his imaginary friend. This is really a coming of age film. The imaginary Hitler isn’t in this as a main character.
Jojo’s tries to be tough, even training to be in Hitler’s Youth Army. But he doens’t do quite as well as he’d like, showing his softer side when he is made fun of by some older Nazi youth for not being able to kill a soft cute rabbit with his bare hands.
Jojo isn’t so tough, and his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson, who’s the shining soul of the movie) knows it. His Nazi fixation cuts against everything she believes, though she doesn’t dare express that. When the two encounter a group of traitors who’ve been hanged in the town square–we only see their legs dangle, a lifeless reproach, a few feet off the ground–Jojo asks what these people did to deserve such a fate. Her quiet answer: “What they could.”
And it turns out Rosie is keeping a secret form Jojo: she has aided a teenage Jewish girl, Elsa (a wonderful Thomasin McKenzie) by harboring her in a hidden compartment in their house. Jojo stumbles upon her hiding place by accident and is initially horrified: as a Jew, she’s everything he has been conditioned to hate, but eventually that gives way to more complicated, and more tender, feelings.
It’s Waititi’s ability to balance unassailably goofy moments with an acknowledgment of real-life horrors that makes the movie exceptional. (He adapted the screenplay from a novel, Caging Skies, by Christine Leunens.) Waititi establishes the tone–a vibe that will eventually take a hairpin twist–in the opening credits, setting the German version of the Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand” against vintage footage of Fuhrer-mad Germans cheering and saluting their idol.
Jojo Rabbit is a world of extremes. The colors pop in their vividness. Some of the jokes are silly and obvious, such as one scene where a group of Gestapo officers is so large that once they’ve Heil Hitler!–ed everyone in their immediate vicinity, the words swirl into nonsense soup, like a round-robin homage to Mel Brooks.
There is certainly elements of Jojo Rabbit that remind me of Mel Brooks films, as well as the films of Wes Anderson. And the cast is superb. With the likes of Sam Rockwell, Reel Wislon, Alfie Allen, Stephen Merchant, and as Jojo’s best friend Yorki, the near scene-stealing Archie Yates, there’s no room for disappointment.
Jojo Rabbit manages to be both not subtle, and also have a delicate touch – more like Waititi’s earlier films, like Hunt for the Wilder People, than the big Marvel film Thor: Ragnarok.
There’s a lot to like in this film. I enjoyed it. It’s funny, and yet has moments that never let you forget the context of this time in history. if you were wondering if Taika Waititi could handle this kind of material deftly, I would say he did.
I definitely recommend Jojo Rabbit. Maybe a whole four kittenhands. it’s a win in my book.
~Neil T. Weakley, your average movie-goer, thinking this may be a fave this year.