Director: Taika Waititi
Starring: Roman Griffin Davis, Thomasin McKenzie, Taika Waititi, Rebel Wilson, Stephen Merchant, Alfie Allen, Sam Rockwell, Scarlett Johansson, Archie Yates
Running Time: 108 min.
★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)
You can almost feel audiences and critics collectively cringe whenever a comedic film is released that tackles anything related to Hitler, World War II or the Holocaust. And understandably so, as these aren't exactly topics brimming with cinematic possibilities for parody and satire. It could also be the reason we've seen so few of them, with most confirming those fears in the worst possible way. It's one thing to fall flat on your face, but it's another entirely to miss the mark while managing to offend everyone in the process. And lately, doing that seems easier than ever. It took all of thirty seconds into Taika Waititi's Jojo Rabbit to realize it would be different, and maybe even a shorter time for me to know I'd love it.
The opening scene so perfectly lays the groundwork for what's to come, taking a tone and approach that immediately disarms the potential viciousness of the material without defanging it, letting us know we're in good hands. And how could we not be when sais scene involves a little boy getting some motivational coaching from his idiotic imaginary friend, Adolf, before segueing into an opening credit sequence set to the German version of the Beatles' "I Want To Hold Your Hand."
Accomplishing even more than being awkwardly hilarious in the face of a seriously shameful piece of history, the film somehow effectively conveys a genuinely touching and light-hearted tale about friendship and tolerance in the face of pure evil. That it doesn't run from nor make light of these weighty issues in delivering this uniquely touching coming-of-age tale is what makes the end result so memorable.
Ten-year-old Johannes "Jojo" Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis) lives with his mother, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) in Nazi Germany during World War II. With his father serving abroad and his older sister having passed away from influenza, Jojo regularly coverses with an imaginary version of Adolf Hitler (Waititi), who provides him with encouragement and support, but mostly acts like a buffoon most of the time. But much to Adolf's pleasure, Jojo and his best friend, Yorki (Archie Yates) enroll in and attend the "Deutsches Jungvolk," a training camp for aspiring Nazi youths run by the one-eyed Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell) and his no-nonsense instructor, Fräulein Rahm (Rebel Wilson).
After an unfortunate accident involving a hand grenade leaves Jojo badly injured with a limp and facial scarring, he's bedridden, aside from getting out to spread Nazi propoganda pamphlets around town. But while home, he makes a shocking discovery upstairs, finding a Jewish classmate of her late sister's, Elsa Koor (Thomasin McKenzie), hiding out. Jojo immediately threatens to turn her over to the Gestapo, until she warns him that his mother could be killed for hiding her. Frustrated, he then demands that she spill her "Jew Secrets," which he plans on compiling in a book to give Klenzendorf. With the war raging on, secretly housing a Jew becomes a major safety risk for Jojo and his mom, even as he starts to look beyond who he heard Elsa should be is to form a genuine friendship with their new houseguest, challenging every belief he thought hw had.
Of the many obstacles the script (based upon Christine Leunens' bestselling novel, Caging Skies) would have in making it to the screen, you'd figure a big one would be getting audiences on the side of a ten-year-old, Hitler-worshipping aspiring Nazi. The young protagonist has to be presented and performed just right for all of this to work, and luckily, Roman Griffin Davis brings just the right mix of bewildered innocence and comedic flare to JoJo, playing him not unlike any other kid who clinges onto and absorbs whatever is put in front of him.
Growing up in Nazi Germany, it's essentially been drilled into JoJo's brain that the sun rises and sets on his hero Hitler, without ever a pause to consider why. The arrival of Elsa into his life gives him that pause, even as he initially has trouble recognizing it. And being ten, he can't be expected to know otherwise until shown, despite having a really positive role model in his feisty, free-spirited mother, Rosie. But at this point, under such an oppressive regime, there's only so much she can do to instill in him the diffrences between right and wrong without facing serious consequences. But hiding this Jewish girl in the house accomplishes that, even as she hopes Jojo won't discover it.
It might be possible to come up with a performance in Scarlett Johansson's career you feel is "better" than the work she does here as Rosie, but good luck naming one that leaves as much of an impact in as short a time. It's very much a supporting role, but she exhibits a comic timing and playfulness we're not accostomed to while still remaining completely in line with the darker edges of the material. And it's testament to how much she brings that when she eventually leaves the screen, her presence doesn't.
It's really the relationship between Jojo and his unexpected houseguest Elsa that gives the film its firepower, with the boy at first intimidated and even afraid of the older girl, if only on the basis of the awful things he's been taught about Jews. And she happily decides to play into it and mess with him a little until he's massively confused by the idea that she may not be so bad after all, flipping his previously limited worldview upside down.
When forced to see Elsa as an actual person rather than a label, Jojo likes her and feels obligated to protect her, leading to the film's most suspenseful scene, when the Gestapo, led by Captain Deertz (Stephen Mercahnt) arrive at the house, questioning Elsa's identity. It's moments like this where we're reminded just how serious this is and how high the stakes, with Thomasin McKenzie's performance during this extended sequence brilliant in how she must somehow create the illusion of maintaining composure while very subtly appearing ready to crack out from unimaginable dread and fear.
The narrative does take a turn, but other than to say we all know the outcome of the war and its ramifications, to give way how profoundly it impacts each of the characters is spoiling too much. But how Waititi's script manages to maintain its wicked sense of humor during the most dire of cirmcumstances continues to seep through even the most minor of details. Upending expectations mid-way through in such a way that it almost feels like a surrealistic fantasy, the story brings a whole new meaning to the notion of being "on the right side of history."
As with any art dealing with this subject, Jojo Rabbit still won't be for all tastes, but it probably comes closest to appealing to the mainstream that any movie broaching this controversial topic has. It's easy to understand its popularity, but the real thrill could be in putting someone with no preconceived notions in front of it and watching them gasp at amazement at what Waititi manages to pull off in the face of seemingly insurmountable material.