‘Jojo Rabbit’ Is Divisive And Delightful

by Jonah Desneux on November 1, 2019

in Print Reviews,Reviews

[Rating: Solid Rock Fist Up]

With his alluring style and sharply dry wit, Taika Waititi has established himself as an icon in modern comedy.

Now after dipping his toes in the Marvel pool with Thor: Ragnarok, Waititi has a larger platform to release his original work with Jojo Rabbit, a coming-of-age Hitler Youth satire that upon its announcement had audiences as fascinated as they were skeptical. When a buffoonish imaginary Adolf Hitler (played by Waititi himself) is a central character in a film, it is within reason to expect some to put up red flags right away. With the anticipation of Jojo Rabbit, people wondered if Waititi’s comedic talents were grand enough to pull off the tall task of creating a feel-good film despite its dark subject matter. Waititi’s comedy alone is not enough to make Jojo Rabbit a success. However, it’s Waititi’s newly shown skill to pull off hard-hitting drama alongside of his humor that makes Jojo Rabbit one of the most unique films of the year.

Jojo Rabbit is hilarious but at times haunting. The film does not shy away from frivolous bits like Waititi’s Hitler leaving a room by jumping headfirst out a window, while also handling gut-wrenching drama in moments you least expect it. Unlike other comedies, Jojo Rabbit does not rely on a traditional narrative formula. Waititi’s playful independence makes Jojo Rabbit an unpredictable ride, kept in control by the underlying heart that doesn’t stop for a second. This combination of slapstick comedy and war-driven drama will inherently not work for everyone. The film’s premise is risky but never reads as anything other than satire. Whether a fan of Jojo Rabbit or simply off-put by its existence, it is difficult to argue the merit of the heart that Waititi puts into the film. With that heart is Waititi’s ambition to get his sadly relevant anti-fascist message across to today’s audiences.

Jojo Rabbit takes place in Germany at the end of the war. Though the Axis Powers are on the verge of defeat, the Nazi reigme is still in full control of the country and avid in grooming young men and women into the Hitler youth. The film’s title character Jojo played exceptionally by Roman Griffin Davis, is one of these young men that has a heart of gold but is brainwashed by extreme nationalism. Trying to find his place in the world Jojo struggles with maintaining his kind heart with the hate and supremacy taught by his Nazi heroes. Serving as an absurd Jiminy Cricket, Jojo’s imaginary friend Adolf Hitler misguides Jojo through these questioning times. Jojo’s personal conflict only escalates when he discovers that his Mother Rosie, played by Scarlett Johansson, has been hiding Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), a young Jewish girl in their home.

Jojo is a flawed character and the lens of the film is through his perspective. Writers tend to only craft children as morally pure, but Waititi exemplifies the corruption that has taken place with Jojo. Thanks to Roman Davis Griffin’s charming performance, Jojo is naturally likable and as other characters tell him in the film, “is not a bad person.” Jojo is scrawny and after an accident sees himself as deformed. Wanting so badly to be accepted Jojo clings to a group that tells him he belongs and is better than everyone else. Your heart breaks for Jojo but you are also revolted by the things he says and does. He’s a little boy that so desperately doesn’t want to be alone and you are left to only hope that he won’t be. Waititi subjects audiences to this gray area to capture the honest perspective of a conflicted young boy.

Much of Jojo’s story is deeply parallel with politics and far-right movements of modern times. In the unfortunate age of the popular re-emergence of far-right groups, even Nazism, there is a plague of young men clinging to hate for a feeling of acceptance. It is a social issue that will be researched for decades to come but Waititi is the first director to attempt to unpack this issue on such a grand stage of cinema. The purpose of the film though is not to give a voice to those of the far-right groups who claim to be voiceless. Instead, the film explores the psyche of Jojo as Waititi presents that the problem isn’t as much with people as it is with the teaching of hate. Waititi does open himself up for criticism for bluntly addressing a problem and not offering any sort of solution, but he is effective in showcasing the hope in humanity through overall goodness winning out. In modern times however, hope is not enough for everyone. Whatever side of the fence you are on for that argument might also very well be how you feel about Jojo Rabbit.

Roman Griffin Davis is an 11-year-old boy wonder in his debut role as Jojo. Waititi has a real knack for bringing out incredible performances from young actors, as in his 2004 short film Two Cars, One Night and 2016’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople. There is something about Waititi’s blunt humor that works so well with the blunt naiveté of children. Davis is no exception to Waititi’s successful partnerships and though he’s surrounded by a phenomenal supporting cast, he carries the weight of the film on his back and delivers in every way. If Davis wasn’t as strong as he is in this role, the film would suffer drastically. Davis illuminates the good and the bad of the troubled character while making us always care about the caring boy underneath the Nazi disguise.

In a similar vein of being naturally likable, Thomasin McKenzie excels as Elsa. Even at a young, age McKenzie captures the gravity of her character. Given the opportunity to show a wide emotional range, McKenzie plays each of her scenes to perfection. She is hilarious, she is heartbreaking, and she deserves the utmost amount of credit for displaying humanity when other characters fight tooth and nail to take it away.

Archie Yates as Jojo’s lovable friend Yorki, steals the show in his limited amount of screen time. Yorki is the quintessential Waititi character with his abundance of blunt charm and Yates embodies it fully. Every time Yorki pops up on the screen, you’ll perk up for the laughs you know are in store. It would be a great injustice to the world if the partnership of Yates and Waititi never happens again. 

The adults in the film represent the conflicting sides in Jojo’s life. Johansson is wonderful in her delightful portrayal of Jojo’s mother. Always spirited and always loving, Rosie represents the good in humanity. Sympathetic to the Jewish people and despising of the Nazi’s, Johansson lights up every scene she’s in. The far-right side of this is Waititi as the imaginary Hitler. Waititi plays Hitler as an utter goofball but the hilarity never makes audiences like Hitler, who is clearly made to be the villain. He is portrayed as an incompetent fool and laughs are had at his expense as we see him through Jojo’s eyes. In an unconventional role, Waititi thrives just like Chaplin did in his own Hitler film 79 years ago.

Even though a character in the film is literally Hitler, Sam Rockwell’s  Captain Klenzendorf is both the most problematic character and the most problematic part of the film. Though also treated as incompetent, Klenzendorf is the leader of the Hitler Youth. Like Jojo, Klenzendorf is carried away by the ideals of glory and patriotism at the expense of his morals. However, the handling of this gray area is not nearly as developed as Jojo, and thus his actions are confusing and his intentions can be misinterpreted.  In representing the middle of Rosie and Hitler, Klenzendorf just isn’t presented properly thus making his story and growth awkward and lacking reason. 

Jojo Rabbit has an ironically whimsical opening sequence as Jojo gets motivated and heads to his Hitler Youth camp. Once this is over, the film stumbles in tone while the rest of the exposition is developed. It takes a little too long for Jojo Rabbit to find its footing in regards to its tone and pacing. Once it does, it goes without blemishes. The first 20 minutes after the opening credits, however, feels like it needs more time in the editing room.

The comedy in Jojo Rabbit is never weakened for the sake of the drama and the drama is never weakened at the expense of the comedy. It is not a film that is not going to be for everybody, but that doesn’t stop it from trying to be. What most people would say they love about movies, you find in Jojo Rabbit. It makes you laugh, it makes you cry, and it makes you think. Waititi attempts to find joy in the most bleak. Though his ambitions does not always land the way they were perhaps intended, Jojo Rabbit still provides one of the most emotionally provoking experiences a comedy can have. 

Jonah Desneux

Jonah Desneux is a recent graduate from the University of Missouri with a BA in Film Studies. It’s baffling that someone who just spent four years writing film paper after film paper would immediately want to write some more, but hey, he must love it! Along with writing about film Jonah enjoys writing and performing sketch comedy in Columbia and Kansas City.

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