Mix together The Producers, The Tin Drum, Hope And Glory, Moonrise Kingdom, Life Is Beautiful, The Diary Of Anne Frank, Hogan’s Heroes, Inglourious Basterds, and anything Monty Python and you still would not come close to describing the wondrous tone and sheer brilliance of Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit, the winner of the Audience Award at the Toronto International Film Festival and one of the best films of 2019. A scabrous comedy set during Hitler’s occupation of Europe, the film, based on the much more sober novel, Caging Skies, approaches this stain on history through the eyes of a heavily indoctrinated young boy. As such, we experience a fresh, hilariously inappropriate yet ultimately powerful and moving take on the subject.
Roman Griffin Davis stars as Jojo, a 10-year-old who, at the outset, appears hellbent on killing as many Jews as he can. After a stunning title sequence in which the German-language version of The Beatles’ “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” plays over images of the screaming throngs of people who worshipped Adolph Hitler, little Jojo attends a Hitler Youth program training camp. Led by a ridiculous trio of trainers played by Sam Rockwell, Alfie Allen and a really funny Rebel Wilson, Jojo faces the first of many challenges when ordered to kill a rabbit in front of everyone. Beaten down by that incident, he conjures up a type of solace via his imaginary friend, Adolph Hitler, played to delirious comic perfection by Waititi himself. This version of the dictator feels as if it’s been filtered through the “Hey girl, let’s dish” school of impersonations, with Waititi intentionally turning Hitler into a jackass almost as self-obsessed and thin-skinned as our current POTUS. Is the weight of history mocked here? If the film only had slaps, slapstick and schtick on its mind, I’d say so, but Waititi draws you in with outrageous comedy only to pull the rug out from under you later. It’s an awe-inspiring tightrope walk.
Jojo lives with his mother, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson), who on the surface presents as a perfect, Aryan specimen, but harbors secrets of her own. Not only is she part of the resistance to the Nazi’s agenda, but Jojo discovers she’s hiding a young Jewish girl named Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) inside the walls of their drawing room. Jojo promises Elsa he won’t tell his mother he knows about her as it could easily lead to her doom. McKenzie, so great in Leave No Trace, proves that film was no fluke. She commands her scenes here with a scary confidence, like a cross between the Feral Child of the Mad Max films and Blake Lively in A Simple Favor. Fast on her feet and quick with a knife, her Elsa feels in charge of her fate.
The film explores Jojo’s conflicted feelings when he slowly realizes the Third Reich is a house of cards built on a very shaky foundation. Waititi draws out suspense in many different ways in the film, with multiple characters in danger of being caught for being Jewish, or a traitor, or just a bad Nazi. All of this, however, gets wrapped into one big comically absurd package reminiscent of Mel Brooks at his finest. Try not to laugh during a scene in which dozens of “Heil Hitlers” get passed around as a large group greets each other. This scene, however, oozes with dread as multiple characters risk exposure. That Waititi can walk that fine line of comedic bliss and stomach-churning horror simultaneously, serves to announce him as a major talent. Cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr. employs a very Wes Anderson style of composed images, but in this case, the camera moves give the film way more energy than expected. He also gets tremendous scope despite a limited budget and a film which largely takes place in Jojo’s home. There’s also a wonderful montage of buildings whose windows look like watchful eyes looking down on a hopeless society.
None of this would work, however, without the wonderfully focused performance of Waititi’s little star. It’s rare to encounter a child actor who doesn’t mimic his scene partners, and Davis stays sharp and committed to maintaining the intelligence and dignity of his Jojo. He may be dead wrong about whom he idolizes, but his humane spirit shines through anyhow. Archie Yates, another young newcomer, steals every scene he’s in as Jojo’s best friend Yorki. His exasperation at how tiring war can be made me laugh out loud. Johansson delivers a crisp, lovely performance, gorgeously containing her emotions at times when lesser actors would be hamming it up to the back rows. She leads her wrongheaded son around as if she were a teutonic Mary Poppins, clucking and winking at him, gently prodding him away from his sickening ideologies. I mean this as high praise when I say she makes it look so easy.
Obviously a comedy set during the Hitler era comes with high stakes, and this film tonally shifts towards one gasp-inducing reveal. Trust me, you’ll know it when you see it. Most filmmakers would wallow in such moments as this, but Waititi keeps the comedy coming while he deftly incorporates true emotional depth. It all leads up to a truly lovely, simple final scene that moved me to tears.
With Jojo Rabbit, Waititi tells us that comedy can save the world. Satire exposes the buffoons, humanizing them in a way that takes away their power. Instead, films like this take on that power, and when in the hands of such a singular talent, it makes you feel like you can take on anything….even the trainwreck world we currently find ourselves bemoaning.
GAY SCALE: For each review, I’ll rate the film on my 50 SHADES OF GAY SCALE to let you know how far it tips in our favor. Jojo Rabbit gets a 20 out of 50. Rockwell and Allen have a whiff of gayness to their characters, especially in a “did they almost kiss?” moment. Waititi’s Hitler also has some truly fey qualities. Sometimes it feels like Bugs Bunny doing his Carmen Miranda imitation but this time in jodhpurs and a little square moustache.
By Glenn Gaylord
Jojo Rabbit opens in US theaters October 18th. Bring your “this is so wrong that it’s right” attitude.