Jojo Rabbit

Jojo Rabbit ★★★★

When trying to imagine the ideal time and place for a filmmaker to set a coming of age comedy most would not think of Nazi Germany during World War II, but that's exactly what writer/director Taika Waititi has done with his latest effort Jojo Rabbit, a dark satire which proves no subject is too depressing to be mined for humor. Based on Christene Leunens's book Caging Skies, the film concerns Johannes "Jojo" Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis), a socially awkward 10-year-old Hitler youth completely devoted to the cause, so much so that his imaginary friend is none other than a cartoonish version of "Der Fuhrer" (portrayed with aplomb by Waititi himself). When the film opens he and other children attend a Nazi training camp for German youngsters overseen by a neer-do-well captain who has been relegated to the thankless job (Sam Rockwell). Despite his eagerness to prove his worth to the Third Reich it's clear Jojo isn't really cut out to be a Nazi, as he can't even bring himself to strangle a helpless rabbit following the orders of higher-ups, thus earning him the unfortunate nickname "Jojo Rabbit". A pep talk from the imaginary Hitler leads to poor Jojo lobbing a grenade into the forest to prove his strength only for it to bounce back at his feet, giving him scars over the side of his face and a limp in his leg. When he awakens in the hospital Jojo is greeted by his over-protective mother (Scarlett Johansson) who has been raising Jojo by herself since his father has been M.I.A while serving the war effort and his older sister has passed away from illness. Jojo remains undeterred in his fanaticism and desperate to feel he belongs among his fellow Nazis, but when he returns home he is shocked to discover one afternoon that hiding away in the attic is teenage Jewish girl Elsa (Thomasin Mackenzie), an old classmate of his sister who his mother has been secretly protecting following the death of her family. While Jojo is initially repulsed and terrified by her presence he realizes he can't report her to the Gestapo without bringing harm to his mother, thus the childishly naive Jojo and the traumatized Elsa begin a complicated relationship that proves to be the heart of the film, as Elsa slowly helps Jojo to realize how foolish and downright destructive the Nazi ethos truly is.

Despite the many hilarious gags and tongue-in-cheek humor that colors the majority of Jojo Rabbit as an anti-hate satire, make no mistake this is a film that deals earnestly with some heavy subject matter. The outright evil of Adolf Hitler, the Nazi party, and their final solution should never be underestimated, and to Waititi's credit he ultimately earns the pathos that his film achieves at its most moving moments. That's not to say that Jojo Rabbit is a perfect movie, its tonal shifts can occasionally feel abrupt, as if some scenes were taken from an entirely different movie, while the very specific humor doesn't always land, or it grows a little repetitive in latter passages. Still, as a darkly comic satire examining how a hateful ideology can take hold in the minds of the most innocent and vulnerable, and more importantly how a fundamental belief in the goodness of man can ultimately win out, Jojo Rabbit largely succeeds thanks to the sincerity of its performances. Roman Griffin Davis proves a young talent beyond his years in effectively bringing humanity to the character of Jojo in a manner that's not cloying. Similarly, Thomasin Mackenzie is a revelation as Elsa, whose haunted eyes and stern, world-weary demeanor mask a young woman both wise and sensitive. Sam Rockwell brings shading to his burned-out Nazi captain who can no longer feign enthusiasm for a losing war effort, while Scarlett Johansson manages to downplay her Hollywood image giving Jojo's mother a down-to-earth relatable quality. There are also entertaining supporting turns from Stephen Merchant as a Gestapo captain who almost feels like he walked out of an Indiana Jones movie and Rebel Wilson as a comically overzealous Nazi Fraulein.

Jojo Rabbit is also a treat to the eyes thanks to the first-rate cinematography of Mihai Malaimare Jr., who so expertly photographed another albeit very different period film with P.T. Anderson's The Master. Acclaimed composer Michael Giacchio also provides an outstanding musical score to rank alongside his work in the Pixar films Ratatouille, Up, and Inside/Out. A film as tonally weird as Jojo Rabbit is never going to be a crowd-pleasing hit with 100% of audiences, especially given the difficult subject matter, but I found it to be both a heartfelt and at times heartbreaking portrayal of how a young boy could lose his innocence but find his humanity, even during the most inhumane of times.

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