2019 | rated PG-13 | starring Roman Griffin Davis, Thomasin McKenzie, Scarlett Johansson, Taika Waititi, Sam Rockwell, Rebel Wilson | directed by Taika Waititi | 1 hr 48 mins |
Audiences generally know Taika Waititi as either the man behind one of the very funniest movies of the last decade, the vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows, or the man who was able to put his own dryly funny, colorfully visual spin on the Marvel formula with Thor: Ragnarok. While it may not soar to the heights of Shadows on sheer moxy, Jojo Rabbit feels like the most well-rounded and satisfying film yet. It’s both richly constructed and broadly oafish, it’s whimsical and cartoonish but also grounded in the character relationships and the harsher realities of the war. This is a movie where most every piece of it is clicking into place beautifully. With a handful of qualms, it is an exceptionally entertaining film.
While a movie staring a 10 year old boy (Roman Griffin Davis) as the title character risks being too cute, Jojo works around that by making our hero a devout, self-professed Nazi. While Jojo’s mother (Scarlett Johansson, absolutely terrific) shields him from the war, the boy is still all about catching those devilish, money-grubbing, bat-like Jews. He attends a Nazi child re-education camp led by Sam Rockwell and Rebel Wilson that looks like a summer camp in a Wes Anderson movie (this entire movie has an Anderson flair) and has posters of Hitler on his wall like the leader is a pop star. His imaginary friend even takes the form of Adolf Hitler (Taika Waititi, casting himself in the unenviable role). Jojo Rabbit is The Hunt For the Wilderpeople in Roberto Benigni’s Nazi Germany with the sharpest satire of anti-Semitism since Borat.
Which brings me to the qualm that stretches over the film. It’s often too on-the-nose with characters voicing Nazi opposition from the perspective of 2019 20/20 hindsight instead of someone who might be in the middle of it. To be harsh, the movie would be a lot better with 100% less Rebel Wilson. It’s unclear if it’s in the writing of the character or in Wilson’s delivery, but it’s often localized here where the movie says the most obvious – “go kill anyone that looks different than you”. Jojo Rabbit occasionally seems frightened that the audience wouldn’t understand it’s own satire. It’s built in the ad campaign condescendingly advertised as “an anti-hate satire” and it’s built into the movie itself with characters almost breaking the 4th wall to tell us they know Adolf Hitler is bad. We know that. Anyone that knows anything about history or has seen a movie or played a video game in the last 50 years knows that. It’s been decades since Adolf Hitler was turned from historical figure to pop culture comic book supervillain. Making fun of Hitler is as old as, well, 1940 when Chaplin did it in The Great Dictator, and we’ve been beating this dead horse for decades since. No points for that.
Just about everything else about Jojo Rabbit is pure pleasure. Best of all is the adapted screenplay by Waititi. Elements of the plot as disparate as Jojo’s grenade disfigurement, the movie’s mother-son relationship and his discovery of a mysterious ghost girl living in the walls (star in the making Thomasin Mackenzie), are carefully built on top of each other and threaded together with a series of clever set-ups and payoffs. Ultimately this is a story of first love and Waititi achieves what has previously eluded him: the film is emotionally moving.
Jojo Rabbit is a jewel that just gets better and better as it goes. It cribs from other sources a bit. A sly eye will feel the Wes Anderson vibe in the dry delivery or the Mel Brooks vibe in the film’s endless “Heil Hitler” greetings. While it may not be funny, it is as light-hearted as it needs to be to balance the material while also resisting cartoonish depictions toward a more complex world. Smartly constructed that just swipes past greatness, Jojo Rabbit movie is rich and rewarding.