Jojo Rabbit is a satirical comedy and the latest feature from New Zealand writer and director Taika Waititi (What We Do in the Shadows, Thor: Ragnarok), based on the novel Caging Skies by Christine Leunens, and stars Roman Griffin Davis as the titular Jojo, a 10-year-old boy with an affinity for propaganda and enthusiasm for Nazism and the German cause whose best friend is an imaginary version of Adolf Hitler (played by Waititi himself). After being conscripted to take part in a training weekend run by a disgraced, one-eyed Nazi Captain named Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell) that goes wrong for almost all involved, and subsequently injuring himself accidentally, Jojo finds himself employed by the Captain during the latter years of the European theater during WWII, assigned to put up propaganda and deliver war summons from the Führer to German households. Unbeknownst to him, his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) has, in fact, hidden a Jew named Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) within their walls, and upon discovering her, Jojo is faced with a choice to either immediately turn her in, or learn all he can about the Jewish from her in order to write a book meant to help the war effort. But with the war coming near to its end, will Jojo be able to finish the book in time? And what if the Jews he has been taught to fear really aren’t the enemy at all? The film also stars Rebel Wilson, Alfie Allen, Stephen Merchant, and Archie Yates.
Taika Waititi is one of the most respected directors working in comedy today for any variety of reasons, but not the least of which is that he’s made two really great films in What We Do in the Shadows, a satire about vampires living in the city as roommates with their own flat, and the thing most people probably know him for having made, Thor: Ragnarok, which anyone reading this has likely already seen and knows the narrative thereof, with the MCU’s Phase 4 franchise entry Thor: Love and Thunder already on its way under, once again under Waititi’s direction. Following Shadows and Ragnarok with yet another satire comedy was bound to happen given how long the rainbow bridge between Thor 3 and 4 actually is, but to satirize Nazism in an anti-hate comedy even in 2019 is a bold flag to plant given the current political climate and the fact that the next Presidential election is exactly one year away from this weekend.
To tell the truth, I wasn’t sure how I felt about Jojo Rabbit when I first saw the trailers for the film; it looked funny and heartwarming to a point, but I wasn’t sure if Waititi and company were really playing the right cards here, especially since the last thing anyone needs is a film that attempts to get its audience to sympathize with those as dangerous and inhumane as actual Nazis (like that idiotic Burden trailer is attempting to do with its KKK redemption narrative), or pretending that anyone who does sympathize with them is worth one’s time. I didn’t want Waititi to try to make me feel sorry for them (as some films so often attempt) or anyone who supported them. Luckily, it doesn’t do this at all, and while its comic nature never really evolves that much beyond its central premise, Jojo Rabbit has a beating heart and performances solid enough to make it a good watch, regardless of how some elements don’t quite hit the sweet spot they so clearly want to.
The trick Waititi manages to pull off here seems like an easy enough one to understand, and yet so many films always seem to miss the magic of it. He tells the story through the eyes of a 10-year-old boy to make his borderline religious devotion to Hitler and Nazism seem ridiculous and silly because it is ridiculous and silly, but only through the eyes of a child can the audience understand just how ridiculous and silly it all actually is in nature. Every adult in this movie is so absurdly naïve regarding the film’s off-screen conflict, yielding such obscure loyalty to a failing cause, that one can’t help but see everything they do as futile and inconsequential in the long run, a long-form dress up party where everyone gets to wear a uniform and fire a gun. The blind fanaticism of a kid who’s told he’s an essential part of the war effort, only to discover that the war is being lost and the cause for which he’s fighting is pointless, actually ends up meaning something beyond horror, and in that sense, Waititi’s satire is perhaps the most well-suited to telling this story, even if in execution, the film doesn’t end up as funny as it clearly thinks it is. After watching the second trailer and reading some less positive reviews post-the film’s TIFF debut, I was afraid that one of the primary complaints I would have against it would be that the comedy never really rose above the level of a feature-length SNL sketch (one of the better ones, anyway), but luckily, that’s not the case at all. The jokes don’t seem to really have any other driving force behind them besides “Hitler absurdist, Jew shocking to a 10-year-old, and Nazis stupid and ridiculous,” but the comedy that is there works well enough for the film not to be a total loss in terms of how funny it has the potential to be.
The key ingredient in this genre-mashing coming-of-age satire, however, isn’t actually the comedy, but rather, the beating heart at its center, which takes the form of Thomasin McKenzie’s Elsa, the Jewish girl living in Jojo’s walls. Every performance is really solid here, and even Taika Waititi manages to steal a few scenes despite how little he’s actually in the film relative to marketing, but it’s McKenzie who informs the film’s strongest emotional beats as she interacts with Davis, who himself is turning in one hell of a great job considering that he’s on screen by himself for a lot of the film when McKenzie isn’t there. It is with Elsa that Waititi turns on the heart meter, and McKenzie’s performance in the film sells every nuance of every emotion her character could be feeling. It’s great to see she’s getting more work after her stunning turn in last year’s Leave No Trace, and after this, she’s sure to keep getting more (and probably an Oscar statue some day). Johansson, too, is more committed than one might expect her to be given that her character isn’t on screen for much of the movie either, and while I won’t necessarily endorse a Supporting Actress nomination for 2020 regarding this performance, it is really nice that one doesn’t have to look very far to see that no matter how large or small the job she takes (although there have been some insensitive castings on her resume), she always commits 110% to exactly who her character is. And though he’s certainly no small name (in fact, he has an Oscar), Sam Rockwell as Captain Klenzendorf is a real treat to watch. All the others (Allen, Wilson, Merchant, Yates) all do great work as well, but they’re not really in the film enough to give their performances more than a sentence of commendation, though Merchant does absolutely steal the show in one scene.
It’s best to see Jojo Rabbit knowing as little about the inner workings of the thing as you can, so I won’t say much more regarding the film, except to point out that one of my only complaints apart from the comedy never really evolving beyond its own premise and the heart of the movie not being quite as impactful as it should be is that the film just isn’t very interestingly photographed; most of it is medium shots and medium close-ups (very few wides and almost no true close-ups), so the whole thing kind of feels low-budget in that way, as if Waititi was attempting to avoid more expensive shots, a disappointing notion for a director who conjured such incredibly creative imagery out of something like a re-invention of Thor. It doesn’t break the film as a whole, and certainly counts as more of a nitpick on my part than an actual problem, but if you’re the kind of person that will notice something like that, it might bother you just a bit.
Other than that, however, I don’t really have any complaints about Jojo Rabbit. Sure, the narrative doesn’t really dive into many other aspects of the story apart from how absurd everything is via satire, but the film’s heart beats true, and the performances are solid enough, with sharp enough writing, for the audience to appreciate the film as a whole. Sure, it’s probably not Waititi’s strongest, but it’s easily the best example of the director’s creative integrity and willingness to just go for whatever idea pops into his head; the fact that he committed to this vision of the film is an admirable gut-call to make. It may not be the single film released this weekend that you absolutely need to see (that still goes to Parasite), but you could do a lot worse for comedy in 2019.
I’m giving “Jojo Rabbit” a 7.93/10.
- The Friendly Film Fan
Film critic in my free time. Film enthusiast in my down time. Writer for Bitesize Breakdown.