“Jojo Rabbit” is a daring yet heartfelt WWII comedy that confidently charges forward and rarely falters

Written By: Victor DeBonis

Photo credit: Fox Searchlight Pictures

With great courage and a sly grin, “Jojo Rabbit” proudly sprints with its own spirit to match with the naïve yet strong eagerness of its main protagonist in its first five minutes and rarely lets up. That probably comes as a small surprise to many, since the director and screenwriter of the movie, Taika Waititi, previously made “Thor: Ragnarok” and proved that he wasn’t one to shy away from combining terrific, technical filmmaking with fierce humor and gags. Some have complained (understandably) that “Ragnarok” suffered a little bit from not taking itself as seriously as it could’ve done, and that made me a little worried for this movie.

If a film is going to tackle humor revolving around the second World War, it’d better do it in a smart way and, if we’re fortunate, offer a great story and some insight to it. It brings me joy to say that “Jojo Rabbit” excels in all of those departments and ventures further, too, by bringing a youthful point of view and soul to the madness of this period of time, where dictators and followers of such vile men could actually believe the absurd, cruel thoughts that they did about others different from them. For a movie that deals with such a bleak time in history, it takes such rightful glee from mocking its central antagonist and the people that blindly followed him but pulls off the even tougher task of being incredibly sincere with its relationships, numerous moments, and the personal journey of discovery of a boy who comes to understand the reality concerning how there are more beautiful ideas and things than the single-minded and dangerous ideology that he initially worships.

From behind the camera and on the script, Waititi tells this story with the right amount of snark, boldness, and soul to do it justice. He brings a vision that knows when to cut to a funny shot or moment of someone doing something dumb, but he also understands when to restrain himself as much as is needed to let the beauty of a simple conversation near the woods with a mom and son that really love each other and the subtle respect of similar, quiet moments to sink in. All scenes are well-lit enough to have a natural look to them, and they never have too much done to the point that they take away from the grayish war-stricken environment.

This movie makes special use of its own humor, cleverly mocking the Nazis in it. In the case of “Jojo Rabbit,” it accomplishes this task by pointing out the sheer absurdity in how foolish and even hypocritical these people are in how they act and what they believe. There’s such a blind confidence revealed from how characters, such as those played by Sam Rockwell and Rebel Wilson, speak about how Jews think or what they consider to be a good strategy for trying to attack them that it’s hard not to chuckle or grin at their sheer stupidity, resulting in the rare type of “dumb comedy” that works like a charm and only gets funnier as the movie goes on. Speaking of which, Rockwell does great as Klenzendorf, a lowly Nazi officer who doesn’t take much pride in himself but is given enough charm and delightfully pathetic nature that I admire watching, too. I found it amusing to see him play someone who was essentially trying to be a mentor of sorts to the boy and shows bits of kindness to him in his own strange ways, even when you don’t agree with what he and his group are trying to do. Once more, Rockwell gives a performance that feels different and natural in its own way, and he reminds me why he’s one of those actors that I always welcome seeing in any movie, regardless of whether it’s good or bad.

The true comedic role of this movie, however, comes from the director himself playing Adolf Hitler but shown here as Jojo’s imaginary friend of sorts. Despite being this child’s obvious idol at the beginning, “make-believe Hitler” expresses a buffoonish, wide-eyed behavior and foolish nature that accomplishes his task of turning one of the worst real-life monsters into a dumbfounded dimwit who acts as though he knows more but ultimately understands very little. At the same time, this version keeps true to representing much of the boy’s inner psyche by blindly agreeing with his desires and attempting to dissuade his frustrations and worries.

The interactions between Jojo and his imaginary buddy truly heighten the comedy and wit of the film by having the boy debate with someone who he considers as his idol and, in essence, argue a little with himself, resulting in some funny and clever conversations that show a boy at war with his own selfish way of thinking and the important people and events in his life that are bringing a different point of view to what the majority of his society has been brainwashing him and many others to follow along with. In the boy’s mind, he believes that he’s following something nobler and grander than one can possibly imagine when the path that he’s eager to tread down is, of course, the exact opposite, and the comical representation of Hitler as a childish idiot seals in a perfectly dark fashion how distant the realities of what people wanted and saw from close-minded souls, such as him, was and how it didn’t add to anything beneficial in the end.

I should also say that, without giving anything away, this version of Hitler doesn’t lack his times when he reveals bits of the uncomfortable monster that he was and only pushes the message and development of what this movie is going for all the more without holding back on the reality that it’s grounded in. Part of the brilliance of the movie is that, when the humor of the bleak situation between the Nazis and the rest of Germany isn’t discussed, there are a number of serious moments that take time just to show how senseless and heart-breaking this war is and how people everywhere are suffering in the midst of such an emotionally devastating time in world history. There’s a sincerity to what the comedy is trying to do here and how it lines up with the more dramatic parts of the movie that I loved.

Let’s talk a little about the young actor who plays the titular protagonist of the movie for a moment. Roman Griffin Davis plays Jojo himself, and, quite frankly, he gives one of the best performances that I’ve seen this year. This is a young character who is a bit arrogant and self-centered on what he wants at times, but he also possesses a naïve nature and vulnerability that is heavily visible. Trying to capture such complicated traits for a kid, while still coming across as believable, is not an easy task, so it speaks volumes that Davis can pull off this type of acting wonderfully and never lose his grip on our attention.

He makes some hurtful comments and doesn’t always act smart, but he scampers around and speaks with the naïve pride and enthusiasm of a young boy who idolizes and treasures what he’s been led to believe for so long to where we’re fascinated to see where his path takes him. Davis commands his words and actions with a straightforward tone and emotional honesty to what he believes and what he comes to discover. And, some of the bittersweet moments work greatly in part because he delivers his lines with quiet subtlety and the emotional vulnerability of someone who certainly cares much for those important in his life but simply needs the direction and guidance to help him be more honest with himself about those feelings and finding what’s important in a society that’s literally at war with itself. Every teardrop, every moment of joy, and every scene of him revealing more of the heart that he has and self-discovery comes across as genuine and well-understood from an actor who is still young but already shows an impressive amount of talent and handles all the complexity and development to his role with ease and strength.

What make this movie truly shine, however, are the two relationships that Jojo has with the two wise and flawed but heavily strong women in this movie. Scarlett Johansson plays Jojo’s mom named Rosie, a woman who is pretty and is a firm believer in her own ideas of what makes for a better society and way of living, even if they differ from her son’s and the majority of those around her. Yet, as far as she may differ from her son’s philosophy about what the best way is to treat others differently from himself and what values are most significant, Rosie loves her son with every inch of her presence. You can feel how much Johansson cares about her boy through how she kisses him at several chances that she gets and how courageously open she is with him about the fact that she is not truly happy with what’s happening around her. Yet, her love and compassion for her son also comes clearly through the beautiful truths that she tries to teach her son about what’s truly important in a bleak and prejudicial world, and Johansson is terrific at encompassing the humor, hopefulness, and passion that defines her character to a tee. Every scene with the two of them together was sweet and put a big grin on my face, and the fact that this mother could unflinchingly love her son with all of her heart, despite their differing beliefs, and that her son could love her back with the same strength was sweet to witness.

The other significant relationship that Jojo has in the film comes in the form of Elsa, played well by Thomasin McKenzie, a Jewish girl that Rosie allows to hide out in her home. Through one of the most fascinating (and, at some times, touching) bonds that I’ve seen this year, Jojo slowly interacts more with Elsa as he tries to figure out how Jews think, and he slowly finds his own prejudicial beliefs being challenged by McKenzie who, similar to the boy, responds with rawness and harshness when provoked but holds a soul and hurt that is masked deeply beneath her sometimes fierce and biting demeanor. The conversations that Elsa shares with Rosie and Jojo echo her personal ache for how she and others around her have lost in this unfortunate time, and the hurt and hope breathes heavily from the wistful passion in her voice. Making her even more interesting and moving to watch as a character is how, in her own way, Elsa shows herself in Jojo’s life to be someone similar to him that, as discovered early on in the movie, almost seems as though she’s here to mend his heart for losing a certain part of the family that was incredibly important to him. I won’t reveal what that part of the family is here, but it made her connection with the lost child all the sweeter.

As mentioned earlier, both Johansson and McKenzie work wonders in their roles, and their interactions with Jojo play out in ways that don’t feel forced and heighten this from being a typical dark comedy by adding a heavier amount of humanity and understanding to this movie. The truth is that, for all of its mockery and sometimes dumb comedy, “Jojo Rabbit” is, in great part, a silly but ultimately heartfelt story about two flawed but incredibly strong, passionate women who teach young Jojo about the power of love, optimism, and values and ideas that are more important than anything the Nazis or any group so lost in its own, unrighteous power and beliefs could teach. In a current society that still seems to want to cling so tightly to the ideas of cynicism and nihilism, especially in some works of comedy, I found the soul and message from this film so refreshing to witness.

This movie has some dark and silly comedy that certainly won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, on top of a more humorous approach to its subject matter that won’t sit right for everyone. All of this is completely understandable. To me, however, this movie overall delivers its humor with purpose and an awareness that prevents it from deviating into uncomfortable territory, and I was wowed with its approach in addition to how sensitive it could be. Its comedy and tenderness comes at the right moments, and it thankfully stays away from trying to be edgy with its approach to its themes and story. A hopeful spirit shines and stays prominent, thanks to this movie’s keen direction, smartly crafted script, and how well its relationships, particularly those between Jojo and his mom and the boy with Elsa, flow smoothly through their chemistry with each other and their ways of teaching about the importance of hope and rightful passion with others in the face of a world stricken with hatred and prejudice. This may be one of my favorite films of this year. “Jojo Rabbit” is original, bold, and gives the right amount of sensitivity, humor, and hopefulness to a story that thrives from its talented actors and writing and results in what may be one of the best films that I’ve seen this year.

Grade: A

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