*** out of ****
(for mature thematic content, some disturbing images, violence, and language)
Released: October 18, 2019 limited; November 8 expands
Runtime: 108 minutes
Directed by: Taika Waititi
Starring: Roman Griffin Davis, Scarlett Johansson, Thomasin McKenzie, Taika Waititi, Sam Rockwell, Rebel Wilson, Alfie Allen, Archie Yates, Stephen Merchant
For a movie predicated on its satirical stab at Adolph Hitler, Jojo Rabbit is ultimately defined by its tenderness.
Despite having what appears to be one of the more brazen concepts of recent memory (having stirred controversy sight-unseen prior to its fall festival debut), Jojo Rabbit ends up being an affecting childhood coming-of-age tale. Beneath the inspired lampoonery beats a very sweet heart.
Jojo (newcomer Roman Griffin Davis, in his film debut) is a boy growing up in Nazi Germany. His ideological formation is driven by Hitler’s Army, a camping / scouting branch of the Third Reich that indoctrinates boys and girls into the government’s ruthless, fascist philosophies.
But here’s where things get really provocative. Jojo, whose father has been absent for years, has taken on an imaginary friend as his surrogate role model and confidant: Adolph Hitler.
No, not the Adolph Hitler, but one who’s a figment of Jojo’ imagination. Or, to be more accurate, a figment of writer /director Taika Waititi’s madcap chutzpah. He plays the role, too, with an absurd goofball spin that, in its way, shows just how ridiculous (and dangerous) the Nazi paradigm could be.
Jojo’s defacto single mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) is his anchor, and they share beautiful moments together as she tries to navigate raising him under a bigoted nationalism she doesn’t agree with.
This balance gets really complicated when Jojo discovers Rosie’s secret: she’s hiding a Jewish teenage girl in the hidden wall spaces of her dead daughter’s old bedroom. The girl’s name is Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie, a breakout of last year’s indie Leave No Trace), who deftly navigates Jojo’s initial anti-Semitic response and fosters a relationship that blooms and grows, coyly playing into Jojo’s naive delusion that he’s doing important reconnaissance research for the Fatherland.
Waititi, famous for reinvigorating Marvel’s worst solo franchise with Thor: Ragnarok, sets aside blockbuster pyrotechnics to craft a richly textured fable, visually and thematically. At first blush, the aesthetic appears to have a shameless Wes Anderson appropriation, but the tone leans more into a mix of slapstick and warmth rather than Wes’s dry, ironic melancholy.
Waititi flavors that with wonderful supporting characters, especially the jaundiced cynicism of Sam Rockwell’s Captain Klenzendorf, a comically bitter leader who’s been demoted to overseeing Jojo’s Hitler’s Army troop. As Jojo’s best friend Yorki, Archie Yates charmingly exudes an adorable deadpan innocence that makes him an absolute scene-stealer, while others like Rebel Wilson, Alfie Allen, and Stephen Merchant enrich the broader, zanier nature of the mishief that Waititi is up to.
Even so, Jojo Rabbit uses its surface whimsy for a purpose; it’s a trojan horse for deeper issues, ranging from blind fanaticism to choosing valor in the face of evil, or more intimate themes like maternal struggles and boyhood crushes. A fable can deliver big, important ideas in a way that allows a child to consider them for the first time or for an adult to contemplate them anew, and Waititi applies that genre’s precepts with an assured hand.
Consequently, for something that could’ve easily gone off the rails, Jojo Rabbit actually gains steam as it goes. Most notably, the tale reaches a dark tragic crescendo (as any good fable must) as it transitions from its middle act to final stretch. The world’s outside dangers – which have been kept at bay by the story’s fanciful, quirky tone – finally come crashing in, and Jojo must confront them with courage and conscience.
Waititi may not be breaking new visual ground or refining a specific personal style, but Jojo Rabbit is an imaginative, confidently rendered vision that not only takes risks but knows how to take them. Yet for as gleefully incendiary as Jojo Rabbit is, its gentle, humane heart is what shines through and touches ours.