We must not allow history to repeat itself. We must not be afraid to speak up, question authority, and stand up for those labeled as “other.” We must also not be afraid to live, love, and laugh. As seen through the eyes of Jojo Rabbit’s titular character, Taika Waititi’s brilliant Nazi satire allows us the opportunity to laugh while tackling deep (and dark) subjects including hatred and bigotry.
The 2019 dark comedy’s based on the novel by Christine Leunens. Taika Waititi adapted the book and put his own spin on the story to make it more cinematic while maintaining the key themes that ran through Leunens’ writing. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, writer/director/actor Waititi explained his approach to penning the script. “I had to keep it in my wheelhouse, my sensibilities — add humor and lightness and weave in and out of the dramatic story. I don’t particularly care about telling a story about Nazis. I wanted to look at war through the lens of children,” said Waititi.
The film’s set in the waning days of Hitler’s reign of terror. 10-year-old Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) claims to embrace the teachings of Hitler and is, in fact, an active member of the Hitler Youth. He’s been taught Jews are evil, horned creatures who need to be exterminated. However, his belief is more surface-level than heartfelt and is based on the need to fit in rather than any deep-seated hatred.
When Jojo’s beliefs waver, it takes the imagined presence of Hitler to keep the young boy in line. Waititi tackles the role of the Hitler from Jojo’s imagination, playing the brutal dictator as a cartoonish psycho with a twisted sense of humor.
Jojo tries to stay true to this imaginary Führer who hangs out in his bedroom proposing ways to make the boy stand out as a member of the Hitler Youth. Hitler’s a sort of surrogate father for Jojo since Jojo’s father is off fighting the war. And when Jojo discovers his mother’s been harboring a teenage Jewish girl in a secret room behind the wall of his dead sister’s bedroom, it’s Hitler he turns to for advice on how to handle this evil intruder.
Against Hitler’s advice, Jojo keeps Elsa’s (Thomasin McKenzie) presence a secret so as not to expose his mother’s illegal activity. As Jojo attempts to learn all the secrets of the Jews for a book he’ll turn over to his superiors, his perception of the world changes.
JoJo Rabbit is shocking, hilarious, surprisingly poignant, and smartly written. It’s also controversial in its approach to making Hitler into a comic character, although as the film explains early on this is Jojo’s version of one of the most hated men in history. This geeky lunatic Hitler is how a 10-year-old boy raised during the Third Reich perceived the Nazi leader.
The incredibly talented ensemble includes writer/director Taika Waititi as Hitler and a quirky, mesmerizing performance by Scarlett Johansson as Jojo’s mom. Oscar-winner Sam Rockwell (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) lends support as one of Jojo’s leaders, a soldier pulled out of the field and bitter over his demotion to supervising the Hitler Youth. But it’s the film’s three young stars – Roman Griffin Davis, Thomasin McKenzie, and Archie Yates (as Jojo’s BFF, Yorki) – who deliver the standout performances. This trio of young actors are the real deal and absolutely nail the nuances of Waititi’s writing.
Jojo Rabbit is one of 2019’s best films and sure to be a huge presence on the year-end awards circuit. Taika Waititi has somehow managed to make a dark comedy with Hitler as one of the lead characters that’s thought-provoking and hugely entertaining. It’s also irresistible in all its weirdness.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for mature thematic content, some disturbing images, violence, and language
Running Time: 108 minutes
Release Date: November 8, 2019