My favorite thing about Jojo Rabbit is that it actually could’ve been career suicide for writer/director Taika Waititi. I mean, can you imagine him describing his ambitions to loved ones: “I’m going to direct a film about a little Nazi who is so obsessed with the Third Reich, he conjures up a fun-loving Hitler as an imaginary playmate. And the best part? I’m going to play Hitler!” His friends would tell him to bury the idea, never mention it again, and possibly seek professional help.
And yet, not only did Waititi go forth and make his strange little movie, it has ended up being one of the funniest, slyest, and most unexpectedly humane films of the year.
It’s important to understand that while Jojo Rabbit is told through the eyes of young Jojo (the rosy cheeked, mop-topped Roman Griffin Davis, who specializes in wide-eyed incredulity), it’s really a story about a mother’s love. And what a formidable mother she is. As played by Scarlett Johansson, Jojo’s mom, Rosie, is a colorful and unique figure—kind but firm, fashionable but practical, playful but unsentimental. When Jojo gets mildly disfigured in an unfortunate grenade incident (one of the ongoing gags of the film is that people keep telling him how hideous he looks; he’s actually as adorable as ever), she pushes him out the door and orders him to go about his day. What’s he going to do, live a life of fear? But the most crucial thing about Rosie is that she accepts her son’s fanaticism at least partly because it protects him. While she herself is a war resister, she wants Jojo to know as little about her activities as possible. Still, she gently leads him toward a more compassionate life. “What did they do?” Jojo asks, confronting bodies who have been hung by the Gestapo in the center of town. “What they could,” she replies grimly.
The film’s major turning point comes when Jojo finds that his mother is hiding a Jewish girl (excellent Thomasin McKenzie)—a teenager named Elsa, roughly the same age as his late sister—in the family attic. At first, Jojo searches for horns and fears that Elsa will try to control his mind. Eventually, he grows fond of her and she becomes his first true crush (depicted, charmingly, as actual butterflies fluttering in his stomach).
Because, you see, Jojo is truly a good boy and a gentle soul. We know this right away, when he refuses to snap the neck of the rabbit he is ordered to kill by a taunting Nazi camp instructor, and we see it as he grows closer to Elsa. His mother knows this too, and that’s why she has faith he’ll grow out of his Hitler-worshipping phase.
Jojo Rabbit looks amazing—with extraordinary costume and set design and a Wes Anderson-esque mise en scene. It's also filled with colorful and delightful supporting characters—from Sam Rockwell as a jaded, gay Nazi who conceives of flamboyant military uniforms in his spare time and simply can’t wait for the damn war to be over and Archie Yates as Yorki, Jojo’s best friend, a good, if somewhat sad-sack chubby kid who has joined the ranks of the Nazi Youth mostly because he wants to fit in.
I should be clear: Yes, some of the Nazi characters are funny, even appealing. But Waititi doesn’t downplay the horrors of the Nazi regime. It’s clear that Elsa’s parents have been exterminated. We see those bodies hanging in the streets (and later, much worse). A few of the instructors at the Nazi camp are vicious warmongers. There’s no ambiguity here: Nazis bad. Resisters good.
You’ll note that I haven’t yet mentioned Waititi’s Hitler—and that’s by design. Ironically, he’s my least favorite part of the film. At first—once you get over the initial shock, that is—the imaginary Hitler friend is a hoot: a game, manic, cheerful playmate who encourages Jojo to be the bestest, bravest Nazi Youth he can be. But eventually, he begins to feel like a gimmick—an irritating disruption you kind of wish would go away. Even Waititi seems to grasp that, as his Hitler appears less and less as the film goes on. On the other hand, Hitler’s presence is responsible for one of the best deployments of an F-Bomb in a movie I’ve ever heard. Yes, such profanity is generally verboten in a kid-friendly film like this, but in this one case, I’ll make an exception.
Jojo Rabbit opens this Friday, November 1, at the Charles Theatre in Baltimore.