The premise of a young boy growing up in Germany during World War II who has an imaginary friend may sound interesting, but, when you then learn that his imaginary friend happens to be the one and only Hitler (Taika Waititi) it is hard not to be completely intrigued. What may really surprise you though is that the evil dictator isn’t the reason to see this film. Imaginary Hitler is what will get you into the movie theater seat, but it is the relationship before a young Hitler youth boy and a Jewish girl that will steal your heart.
“Jojo Rabbit,” tells the story of a seemingly normal boy named Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) growing up in Nazi Germany. His room walls are covered with Hitler imagery as if he is the latest teen celebrity. As you would expect, being surrounded by the brainwashing, hateful Third Reich propaganda has lead to a very confusing and difficult childhood. Instead of a typical summer being taught swimming, knot tying, and fire building, he performs weapons training and book burning at his Hitler Youth camp. Worst of all are the campers are constantly taught nasty lies about the Jewish people – everything from how they grow horns and tails to their hunger for babies.
Jojo is raised by his mother, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson), who knows that in order to survive, he must abide by the Nazi ways. At the same time, she counters their teaching with guidance of her own. It is no wonder Jojo turns to his idol Hitler to help him sort through his conflicting feelings. He is sort of his version of Jiminy Cricket, his personification of a conscience, but with only the absolute worst advice.
His confusion reaches its peak when he finds a Jewish girl named Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) living in his attic. Even though she is a harmless-looking girl, he proceeds with caution because everything he had been taught was meant to make him fear and hate all jews. It does not take long for him find flaws in the Nazi teachings and a bond starts to form between them.
The relationship between the two unlikely apartment-mates is the heart of the film. The innocence of their youth conflicts combined with the seriousness of their current situation provides for the perfect setting for an unorthodox coming of age. Jojo’s youthful naivety mixes well with Elsa’s wiser than her years for a mutually reliant relationship. As Else, McKenzie delivers a nuanced performance – somberness tinged of hope – like the sun briefly peaking through the clouds on an otherwise overcast day. Watching Elsa and Jojo slowly tear down the wall that divides them is wonderful to experience, reminiscent of the awkwardness of first romances.
The film’s first half is full of Nazi mocking satire – some madcap humor used to poke fun at their banal ignorance and hatred. The problem is that it is almost too steadily amusing and rarely letting the weight of the serious situation set in. Although fun to watch, it lacks the emotional connection needed to work. I feared the film wouldn’t find it’s stride and only succeed with the parts being greater than the whole
Luckily, Taika Waititi, (who wrote and directed the film) finds the film’s groove in the second half of the film starting with a scene depicting a nerve-racking close encounter with Gestapo. The powerful scene masterfully blends intense and comedic elements. It is the combination of the dark, sad, funny, poignant, hopeful, and beautiful elements make for an incredibly moving second half. It creeps up on you and engulfs you.
The wide range of performances are wonderful throughout. The leads, Davis, MacKenzie, Johansson and Waititi have spectacular chemistry that ranges from the grand and outlandish to quieter, moving moments. Stephen Merchant and Rebel Wilson provide laughs in scenarios that would be downright disturbing in any other setting but are wickedly funny in this alternate version of history. As Captain Klenzendorf, it’s Sam Rockwell who steals some scenes by adding an unexpected and complex angle to the situation. And, Yorki (Archie Yates), Jojo’s best friend steals scenes with his frank delivery, providing reliable friendly advice while in the midst of arrant madness.
The soundtrack perfectly complements the absurdity of the film. Often using German covers of classic pop-rock tunes by artists like the Beatles and David Bowie, it works by injecting something foreign into the familiar. And just as the soundtrack does, the art direction of the film is simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar. When you picture WWII you’d expect dusty and greyed out, instead they use a vibrant color palette that captures a child’s dreamlike perspective. At times it looks like something straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting – one with an imaginary Hitler, or course.
The film as a whole is delightful and clever. It is a coming of age story set in a very bizarre and horrible time (some may see some parallels to today… some) seen through the eyes of a boy whose innocence often makes him oblivious to the evil by which he is surrounded. It encourages viewers to step back and take note of those human elements that bind us all. In a time where the divide between fellow humans seems to grow larger by the day, to see characters connect, sometimes through words, sometimes in silence is quite encouraging.
“Jojo Rabbit’s” combination of the humor, heart, and violence delivers quite a beautiful story in the middle of one of the worst times in history. Fiction or not, it provides hope. It is the type of film that parents will want to share with their kids one day.