Arts movie review

Taika Waititi’s ‘Jojo Rabbit’ is worth a watch

Marketed as an ‘anti-hate’ satire, the film expertly balances the sensitive nature of Nazism with the classic Waititi comedy

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Roman Griffin Davis and Taika Waititi star in 'Jojo Rabbit.'
Kimberley French

Jojo Rabbit
Directed by Taika Waititi
Screenplay by Taika Waititi
Starring Roman Griffin Davis, Thomasin McKenzie, Scarlett Johansson, Sam Rockwell, Rebel Wilson
Rated PG-13, Playing Oct. 25

On paper, Jojo Rabbit seems like a questionable concept for a film: Ten year old Nazi fanatic, Johannes “Jojo” Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis) is living in Nazi Germany during World War II with his imaginary friend Adolf Hitler (Taika Waititi). Jojo is discharged from his Nazi summer camp after being blown up by a grenade, relegating him to hanging up Nazi propaganda back home instead. During this period, he discovers that his mother, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson), has been harboring a Jewish girl, Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), in his sister’s old room. 

Marketed as an “anti-hate” satire, the film expertly balances the sensitive nature of the topic with Waititi’s classic comedic style. It carefully handles the Nazi topic and makes it clear that it is not trying to offend anyone (except Nazi fanatics). All the negative comments are made in such an exaggerated and comical way that the satirical aspect is evident. The satire serves as a cushion for the more unpleasant events, providing comedy relief with the light Nazi portrayals. Throughout the course of the story, however, the tone becomes less satirical and more sincere in its narrative, diving into more serious themes. As a result, when the tonal shift occurs, it comes almost as a surprise. The shift occurs when the Betzler household is subjected to a search by some Nazi authorities. With Elsa attempting to masquerade as Jojo’s older sister, Rosie absent, and Jojo trying to decide between what’s wrong and right, this particular scene’s tension is palpable as the audience wonders whether or not the Betzlers will be alright and where they will go from this point. 

The film juxtaposes the repercussions of blind fanaticism against the hope of a better future and the preservation of childhood. Jojo’s entire belief system is challenged when he befriends Elsa and learns that Jews are not in fact bloodthirsty demons who can read minds as he had been taught all throughout his life. She recognizes that he is not as set in his ways as he thinks he is — after all, he is only a ten year old child who at that point hadn’t had any real exposure to the war, and yet he embodies everything that has led her to her current status as a refugee. To Jojo, Elsa is like a whole new species, and he thinks she really is. Everything he knows has been taught to him by prejudiced characters. Given their vastly different backgrounds, it takes some time for the two to trust each other. From threats of murder to dancing on the street, they eventually become close friends and confidants, each learning from the other.

At the same time, Rosie is attempting to help Jojo live as a normal ten year old boy while she herself is doing whatever she can to fight against the Nazi powers. It is interesting to note that despite Rosie clearly being against the Nazi regime, her son is as big of a Hitler fan as they come, indicating that perhaps Rosie saw it safer to let Jojo carry those ideas in their Nazi-populated town than to let him into her world that is fraught with graver danger. And even though each half of the mother-son duo has their stark differences, the scenes between the two provide a nice heartwarming break from the war troubles when they’re not discussing politics. As the other soldier boys are riding in a caravan, returning broken and bruised from a battle, Rosie and Jojo are serenely biking alongside them, returning from an outdoor jaunt in the countryside.

The cast gave laudable performances all around; the child actors in particular were very memorable. Davis delivers an exemplary performance as a young boy watching his world crumble, while McKenzie is an excellent foil as a young girl who has already seen her world crumble due to the likes of Jojo’s role models. Waititi himself played Hitler, and it was as comical as one would expect from the same person who played Korg in the Marvel Cinematic Universe — his portrayal was not at all historically accurate (apart from the mustache), nor was it intended to be, playing into the satirical nature of the film.

Aesthetically, the film is remarkable. Instead of the typical grim color palettes of World War II movies, Jojo Rabbit went the opposite direction and indulged in a more pleasing pastel tone for the tailends of the movie, signifying the more light-hearted parts. Once more serious events began to unfold however, there was a distinctive shift to the aforementioned grim colors. Gone were the pretty pastels and humorous incompetencies; in their places were duller colors and imminent threats. The sudden bleakness of the narrative parallels Jojo’s realization of how flawed his previous beliefs were. In that way, the color palette throughout the movie matches Jojo’s state of mind as he goes from a blissfully ignorant follower to a confused and conflicted child to finally, a boy who has lost yet is still striving to be a good person.

Waititi masterfully crafts a surprisingly heartwarming yet comedic film. While more risks could have been taken with the direction of the narrative, Jojo Rabbit loses none of its poignancy and is an admirable entry into this season’s award contenders.