Review: 'Jojo Rabbit' a jubilant comic farce that takes aim at hatred
Taika Waititi writes, directs and stars in brave WWII comedy
An enchanting, whimsical satire about the absurdity of war as seen through a child's eyes, "Jojo Rabbit" doubles as an important film about the need for understanding in a divided world.
In addition to writing and directing the sharp, colorful comedy, Taika Waititi stars as a buffoonish version of Hitler, the imaginary friend of 10-year-old Jojo (the wonderful Roman Griffin Davis). It's the waning days of World War II in Nazi Germany, and in his head, Jojo is dedicated to the idea of Hitler and joining the war alongside his fellow countrymen.
In reality, he wouldn't hurt a fly — or a rabbit. Off at weekend war camp, led by the flamboyant Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell), Jojo is handed a bunny and asked to break his neck to prove his allegiance to his fellow Hitler Youths. He panics, setting the animal down and shooing it away, while his squad leader taunts him, nicknaming him "Jojo Rabbit" and leading a chorus to mock him.
Jojo tries to save face by tossing an explosive device to impress his fellow cadets, but it backfires on him, leaving him scarred and limping.
Back at home recuperating, Jojo discovers that his mother, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson), has been hiding a young Jewish girl in a cubbyhole inside her bedroom walls. The girl, Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), is a former classmate of Jojo's sister, who recently died of health complications. (Jojo's father is also out of the picture, having deserted the war and taken up residence in Italy.)
Jojo is at first terrified of Elsa, as he's been taught to hate and despise Jews. But he slowly grows close to her, challenging his ideas of whom and what he's been brought up to believe, and questioning what he thought were his loyalties.
"Jojo's" ensemble cast is an embarrassment of riches. Davis and McKenzie are pure gold, their chemistry forming the whimsical base on which the film is built. Rockwell, on a serious roll since his Oscar-winning turn in "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri," is a delirious delight, as are Rebel Wilson, Stephen Merchant and Archie Yates, who are splendid in small roles.
Johansson, meanwhile, gives Rosie a big heart and an outsize spirit. "Life is a gift. We must celebrate it. We must dance," she tells her son, embodying the film's overarching message of kindness and humanity in the face of evil.
But it's Waititi's movie through and through, and he does bravura work in front of and behind the camera. His mischievous sense of humor carries the film through what could be awkward and deeply sensitive territory, and he immediately disarms Hitler by turning him into a cartoonish dolt. He's taking aim at the institution of hatred and the brainwashing of a people, and his approach is broad and blunt, wiping out all its intended targets.
Visually, Waititi shoots in clean, symmetrical frames and rapid zooms that recall the work of Wes Anderson. He uses music to underscore the film's playful mood, cutting war footage over the opening credits to an anachronistic, dubbed-in-German version of the Beatles' "I Want to Hold Your Hand." It's a rollicking way to begin a WWII comedy, and sets the tone for both the silliness and warmth that lie ahead.
"Jojo Rabbit" is a smart, accessible, inclusive film that opens doors at a time when many are slamming them shut. It's a celebration of the gift of life that's inviting you to dance with it. So dance with it.
Rated PG-13: for mature thematic content, some disturbing images, violence, and language
Running time: 108 minutes