Imagine “Moonrise Kingdom” got a Swastika paintjob and that is basically this film.
“Jojo Rabbit” tells the tale of a 10-year-old Hitler Youth (played by Roman Griffin Davis) who discovers his mother (Scarlett Johansson) is hiding a Jewish girl (Thomasin McKenzie) in their attic. Taika Waititi stars as an imaginary version of Adolf Hitler, while also writing and directing; Sam Rockwell, Rebel Wilson and Alfie Allen also star.
This film has been subject of anticipation, skepticism and criticism for quite some time, and its light portrayal of Nazi Germany has led some to make comparisons to 1997’s “Life Is Beautiful” (a great film in its own right). Waititi has spoken on this, saying that trying to complain about and shut down a film that uses a dark subject matter for comedy is actually playing into the very mindset that those people are upset about in the first place. “Jojo Rabbit” may not break new ground (Nazis are bad, 1940s were a dark time for certain people, no one needs that refresher course) but what it lacks in true danger it makes up for in heart.
Children actors can be hit or miss, and this is one of those times where it is a straight bullseye. As the titular Jojo, Roman Griffin Davis is a star in the making, with a cute face and tousled hair, and enough facial expressions he could fill an emoji board. Asked to carry most every single scene of the film, and sometimes act alongside his director, a grown man in a Hitler outfit, Davis does a near-masterful job, giving us fantastic deadpan delivery, emotional glances or heart-breaking reactions. There were times his delivery of Waititi’s script was so sharp the audience laughed over the succeeding lines of dialogue, including one phrase that had people in actual tears.
The supporting cast all turn in great work, too, including Archie Yates as Jojo’s fellow Hitler Youth friend, Sam Rockwell as his scene-stealing SS Captain and Scarlett Johansson as the sympathetic “stop-and-smell-the-roses” mother. They are all given great lines from Waititi and don’t step on each other’s toes, and you get excited whenever they show up on screen. As imaginary friend Hitler, Waititi is essentially playing the Führer if he was mixed with “Mean Girls’” Regina George, and if the idea of Adolf Hitler looking at a 10-year-old boy after an argument and saying “well… that was intense!” is not funny (or worse, offensive) to you then I don’t want to be friends with you anyways.
The production and costume designs of 1940s Germany are also commendable, full of color and detail. We’ve see war-torn Europe in film dozens of times before, and “Jojo Rabbit” gets its chance to flash everything from open fields to obligatory post-bombed city squares, but it is always impressive when a filmmaker can transport you to a time period.
Now the area that may lose some people, beyond the light-hearted take on something as evil as the Nazis, is that the film is pretty cut-and-dry. Very few, if any, of the characters are shades of grey; you’re either a good guy or a bad one, and even the evolution of Jojo out of his indoctrination at times does not feel earned. Sam Rockwell’s character is really the only one who gets any real arc or a sense of “there’s more to this character than we see in the 110 minutes we’re with them,” and it’s probably why (on top of being incredible in everything he touches, sans “Vice”) Rockwell was my favorite part of the film.
“Jojo Rabbit” was a festival darling and time will tell if it is an awards contender, too; but I don’t think it truly needs hardware to justify itself. It manages to deliver numerous laughs in spite of a potentially dark subject matter, and at the same time lets the audience laugh at the expense of some of the worst humans that ever walked the earth. Does it play things too safe and contrive some drama? Sure. But the film is feel-good and funny, and in 2019 that’s not something I for one am going to turn away.
Critics Rating: 8/10
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