In the midst of discussions over how to be funny in a modern world, and nonsense questions on whether or not a film such as Blazing Saddles could be made today, enter writer/director Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit. Adapted from the novel Caging Skies by Christine Leunens, Waititi has put together a sweet, clever, and occasionally hilarious coming-of-age story about an aspiring little boy in a Hitler Youth Camp. One could see this as risky subject matter, but the art of comedic subversion is in full force thanks to good writing, a terrific ensemble cast, and some surprising emotional heft. Jojo Rabbit is a real joy of a film.
Taking place during World War II, the film sets the audience up for what they are in for early on with the introduction of 10-year-old Jojo Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis in an excellent debut performance). His morning routine finds him dressing up to go off and learn how to be a great Nazi. With help from his imaginary best friend, Adolf Hitler (a very goofy Taika Waititi), Jojo allows himself to be psyched up and run down the streets of his German neighborhood, giving the Nazi salute to everyone he passes.
This sequence, which is scored to a German rendition of The Beatles’ “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” is as ridiculous as it is funny. At the same time, anyone wondering what to expect from a comedy set in Nazi Germany should have an idea of the sort of silliness they are in store for. Understandably, this is a fine line to walk. It’s not the first time Nazis have been made the butt of the joke, as films ranging from Chaplin’s The Great Dictator to Benigni’s Life is Beautiful to Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds have all found ways to tackle dark times in the world’s history. With that in mind, part of the joy of Jojo Rabbit comes from seeing what angle the movie wants to take.
As I noted already, the movie is essentially a coming-of-age story. Jojo is an impressionable young boy whose father is said to be off fighting in the war. His mother, Rosie (a very good Scarlett Johansson), has her own concerns for her son, as she sees him taking the Nazi ideals to heart in place of just being a kid. However, Jojo is a young boy, and we recognize how his confused emotions have shaped his perceptions in a way that doesn’t make him a monster, so much as a kid in need of proper nurturing.
There’s a simplicity to this core concept, but there’s also a reason the film has a mild PG-13 rating (in America). For all the outrageousness of building a story around a kid with Hitler as his imaginary friend, Jojo Rabbit has a ton of heart speaking to what Jojo (and others) find amid such a scary and painful time. This is made all the clearer when a central focus of the plot kicks into gear. Mild plot spoiler, but early in the film, Jojo discovers his mother is hiding a young Jewish girl, Elsa (Leave No Trace’s Thomasin McKenzie), in their home.
This discovery, and the interactions that follow play a massive role in messing with Jojo’s worldview. He’s conflicted thanks to the brainwashing he’s gone through as a young boy raised during this time. There’s also the adolescence factor, as Jojo finds himself attracted to the Elsa in ways he slowly comes to understand, despite her being Jewish. For everything else that takes place, it’s important to emphasize the role these kids have. It speaks to the innocence of the film, even as things become rough for both of them.
At the same time, Jojo Rabbit has a strong supporting cast happy to dig into the comedic material offered up to them. Waititi does relish the opportunity to play his version of Hitler with as much emotional intelligence as Jojo and represented in various heightened states serving as both counters to what’s on screen, and a means to further paint the “führer” as the pathetic monster he was. Waititi’s role is not the only broad performance either.
In the film’s reality, Sam Rockwell plays a Nazi captain who’s been demoted to training the youth. His attitude is not too far away from his role in The Way Way Back, of all things, given his casual nature mixed with assumed authority presence. Rockwell is joined by Alife Allen as his second in command, who scores big laughs in a near-silent performance. Rebel Wilson has less to do but serves as another ridiculous addition to this group.
The film also finds room for all 6 feet and 7 inches of Stephen Merchant, who plays a Gestapo agent in one extended segment that is both tense and quite funny. It’s worth bringing this up, as the film manages to use the actor’s size as a threat, which I honestly haven’t seen before. It also allows for a reason to address what kind of comedy Jojo Rabbit is.
The ads and posters have wanted to highlight this film as an anti-hate satire. I suppose I can understand, what with the strange times we live in where being a Nazi is not immediately considered a bad thing by everyone. At the same time, it’s not as if Waititi is pushing any sort of edginess beyond the general premise. Jojo Rabbit is more or less a comedy with a quirky sense of humor, aided by some emotional and heartfelt moments to both dictate the stakes and show a young boy the right path.
Finding a place for a Gestapo agent to reemphasize the tragic scenario the Jewish people faced in this period, while undercutting it through jokes at the expense of the Nazi system is not satire. However, funny is funny, and the film knows how and when to hit its marks. At the same time, it finds the right moments to push emotions to a different place. This is where Johansson’s role becomes more critical, as well as McKenzie’s, as Jojo learns hard truths shaping the narrative to be more than just a gag fest.
Jojo Rabbit has all the energy it needs to work as a movie doing more than simply expanding on the joke of having the most extreme of imaginary friends. Thanks to strong work by young Roman Griffin in the lead, there are plenty of avenues explored, and it makes for a film that is as funny as it is compelling. Having a strong cast to support him, as well as a great handle on bringing this exaggerated world to life only further adds to the value of such a seemingly absurd feature. It’s also a proper step for Waititi, who has chosen one of the wildest of ways to further establish his hold as a fresh filmmaking voice, even if it required a silly little mustache this time around.