Jojo Rabbit has been getting Oscar buzz since it first screened earlier this year. When I first heard about it and saw images and clips from it I was confused by this. It looked like a comedy, was made by the guy who made Thor: Ragnarok (Taika Waititi), and features Rebel Wilson. The main character is a kid who has Hitler as an imaginary friend, and Waititi is playing that imaginary Hitler. It was a lot to take in.
Once the movie came out I wasn’t sure I was going to see it but the buzz was too strong (and there wasn’t anything else out worth watching) so I caved.
I’m glad I did.
Though the images and the rhetoric are very off putting at first, they quickly start to soften the blow with the humor. At some points early on it borders on being too much satire but it never takes that element too far. Through the lens of this young boy we are able to see the damage that propaganda can do to children. Though it is very funny at times, Jojo Rabbit is also a heartbreaking movie.
You will laugh and you will cry. Taika Waititi’s Nazi Germany satire Jojo Rabbit manages to make you laugh through most of its runtime while still delivering serious messages throughout. Even when things get heavy you can’t help but enjoy this movie.
You have a general idea what the story is about but I want to give you more of the substance. Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) is a young German boy who is obsessed with Hitler. Hitler is his hero and at the start of the film Jojo is getting ready to go off to a Hitler Youth camp.
His mother (Scarlett Johansson) is raising him alone while his father is off fighting in the war. The camp is where Jojo gets his nickname as he runs off “like a scared rabbit” when faced with the task of killing one with his hands. It’s clear Jojo is a kid with a good heart but he is learning to hate Jews through the propaganda being fed to him.
That world view is rocked when he comes face-to-face with a Jewish girl. Now he must figure out what to do about this intruder who puts he and his family at risk by simply being in their home.
As I said, I was worried about the tone of this movie. You have to have a good balance of humor and the reality if you are going to satirize Nazi Germany, out of respect for the seriousness of what happened. This is where telling the story through the eyes of a child works.
First of all, the imaginary friend Hitler is what a kid might fantasize about Hitler being like, vs us having to see the real man. Then, because our lead is a kid, some of the propaganda of the time can be talked about like it’s serious by the characters while showing how ridiculous it is to the viewer. At first I wasn’t sure how to feel about some of this rhetoric, but Rebel Wilson’s character makes it clear that we are supposed to be laughing.
Jojo’s best friend Yorki (Archie Yates in his acting debut) stole the show for me. He’s a chubby little kid with thick glasses who is way more serious than a kid should be. Both kids take themselves way too seriously but Yorki’s appearance and tone make him that much more hilarious. With Jojo you can still see the doubt in his eyes but Yorki is very sure of everything he’s saying.
The Serious Content
After the Jewish girl, Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), is introduced we are forced to take things a bit more seriously. Here we have a home with a child who worships Hitler where a young Jewish girl is being hidden away. Her life is in danger, that’s why she’s hiding, and now that Jojo is aware of her there’s no telling what will happen.
There are many great interactions between the two as Jojo tries to better understand her people. He decides to make a book about Jews and interviews Elsa for intel. He asks about them being cannibals and sleeping upside down like bats. Elsa plays along with him sometimes but gets serious at others to educate him. She has to do so without scaring him off so choosing her spots is important.
I won’t give away how she goes about convincing him not to turn her in, as that has to be part of the intrigue going into the film. She wears him down slowly on his anti-jew rhetoric though and it’s a fun relationship to watch develop.
Things get very heavy near the end but the movie still manages to undercut some of it with humor.
JoJo Rabbit has a lot more humor but it reminded me a lot of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. It’s two kids navigating a cruel world and reacting to the things happening around them. While Striped Pajamas wants the heaviness to stay with you, Jojo Rabbit does bring things around on a lighter note after hitting you with the darkness. The fact that Scarlett Johansson and Sam Rockwell’s characters are able to communicate the reality of what’s going on without speaking it is powerful for the audience while not shifting the story away from Jojo.
Its ability to give you the real and still give you something to smile about is why JoJo Rabbit is so highly regarded and why it is a legitimate contender come awards season. It’s definitely one of my favorite movies this year.