REVIEW: Jojo Rabbit [2019]

Rating: 8 out of 10.
  • Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 108 minutes
    Release Date: October 18th, 2019 (USA)
    Studio: Fox Searchlight Pictures
    Director(s): Taika Waititi
    Writer(s): Taika Waititi / Christine Leunens (novel Caging Skies)

Where are all the goddamn knives?

Seeing how skittish little Jojo Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis) appears, a group of older Hitler Youths under an injured Nazi captain’s (Sam Rockwell‘s Klenzendorf) command decide to test his resolve. Since the boy enjoys talking the talk when it comes to killing Jewish people due to believing his father is a war hero doing the same on the frontlines (others wonder if Mr. Betzler turned deserter considering nobody has heard from him, alive or dead, for months), they hand him a bunny and order him to show them that killer instinct of which he’s so proud. This is a ten-year old kid playing dress-up with monsters forever targeting the weakest among them and he acts accordingly by futilely trying to save the creature before they snap its neck.

Jojo unsurprisingly runs away in response to this horrific event, fleeing towards the trees to be consoled by his imaginary best friend Adolf Hitler (Taika Waititi). That comically absurd visage guarantees everything will be okay because rabbits are actually very courageous animals that he plans to keep within his Aryan Kingdom after exiting the war victoriously. He tells Jojo to therefore embrace those bullies’ laughter and prove his worth by fearlessly hopping into the fire to wear the “rabbit” nickname as a badge of honor. Doing so earns a hilariously tragic result that perfectly encapsulates the message at the heart of Waititi’s film Jojo Rabbit by showing how easily innocence can be erased. Choose the wrong hero and there’s no turning back—not even for a child’s subconscious.

Adapted from Christine Leunens‘ novel Caging Skies, Waititi takes full advantage of having a young boy whose identity hasn’t yet solidified as his vessel for teaching humanity’s power. Just because Jojo wears a swastika and hangs propaganda above his bed doesn’t mean his fate has been sealed. What choice does he have anyway? Rejecting this trajectory would only place him onto the same pathway to a bullet as those poor souls he’ll be asked to murder himself. In his mind Jews are horned creatures ruled by the Devil—fairy tale villains within a story fed to him as a means of indoctrination. So when he stumbles upon one (Thomasin McKenzie‘s Elsa) hiding behind the wall of his late sister’s room, what can he do besides scream?

There’s a reason authoritarian regimes control the media. Maintaining their lies as truth means suppressing every fact that proves otherwise. This is a major factor with genocide too because only through dehumanization and death can your victims be silenced from showing you the error of your way. Give Jojo another year or two and he might harden into a soldier willing to kill a Jew without so much as a pause. Put him face-to-face with one now, however, and he’ll question what it was he was supposed to fear. And because his mother (Scarlett Johansson‘s Rosie) is the one who let Elsa in, his focus must shift to the enemy that’s thus far pretended to be his friend. Elsa might kill him. The Nazis will kill his mom.

He’s caught in a stalemate. Telling his mother he knows might end in Elsa cutting his throat. Telling Captain Klenzendorf will have the Gestapo knock at his door. Jojo’s only option is to make the best of the situation and grill Elsa about her race to author a book that will better help Nazis like him separate Jews from Germans. She of course plays along, feeding him wild tales that align with his own warped sense of reality (it’s not like the Hitler he’s created in his mind will know enough to tell him she’s lying). The more time they spend together, the more confused Jojo becomes about her supposed evil. And whether or not he comprehends the astute jokes she lays upon him, we most certainly do.

Waititi imbues a welcome irreverence to the proceedings to ensure his tone won’t take us by surprise. Introducing his Hitler straight away while Jojo prepares for camp therefore allows us to dive headfirst into this zany depiction of the world’s most hated historical figure as filtered through the mind of a devotee devoid of the maturity necessary to truly see him as more than a cartoon Führer eating unicorn meat for dinner. The character toes the line with a shocking level of delicacy considering he exists in a Nazi comedy, but that might be because his “real-life” counterparts (Rockwell’s Klenzendorf, Alfie Allen‘s Finkel, and Rebel Wilson‘s Rahm) lack any subtlety whatsoever. They’re jokes to be disregarded as fake Hitler’s increased anger is directly related to Jojo’s determination.

More than a demon on his shoulder to contrast Rosie’s angel upon the other, fake Hitler is a manifestation of what Jojo will become if nothing prevents it. The boy is literally fighting himself every time this “friend” appears to give advice or share his burdens. Jojo’s ability to defuse Adolf’s darker ideas is thus evidence that he hasn’t yet been lost. Rather than gravitate towards a grislier reactionary form older children have been conditioned to uphold, he still unconsciously lets his pure heart conquer his brainwashed mind. He won’t just change sides, though. The paranoia and caution regarding Elsa doesn’t go away. Her presence simply keeps Jojo open to the possibility he’s wrong. The Nazis’ increased desperation to turn their wrath inward is what might confirm it.

Jojo Rabbit ultimately finds itself growing very heavy while approaching its climax as a result. Waititi does well to make certain this shift doesn’t arrive out of nowhere thanks to a few dramatic moments shared between Jojo and the two women (Rosie and Elsa) in his life. Frustrations are amplified and compassion is found along the boy’s road to understanding the complexity the Nazis willfully left out. And emotions only get more potent as the harsh realities of this war manifest to shatter Jojo’s fantastical illusions. Despite Waititi earning this weight, however, he does inevitably stumble at the end by abruptly returning to broad laughter courtesy of his most outlandish humor yet. This whiplash won’t ruin what happened, but it’s awkward enough to somewhat derail its lasting impact.

[1] Taika Waititi and Roman Griffin Davis in the film JOJO RABBIT. Photo by Kimberley French. © 2019 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved
[2] Thomasin McKenzie and Roman Griffin Davis in the film JOJO RABBIT. Photo by Kimberley French. © 2019 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved
[3] Scarlett Johansson and Roman Griffin Davis in the film JOJO RABBIT. Photo by Larry Horricks. © 2019 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

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