Few writers/directors would attempt, much less pull off what Taika Waititi has in his latest film, “Jojo Rabbit.” Taken out of context the summary sounds quite preposterous. How many comedic coming of age stories features a blossoming Nazi with Hitler as his imaginary friend? And yet, this film is one of the most delightful and touching films of 2019.
The film opens with 10-year-old Jojo(Roman Griffin Davis) excitedly preparing for his first day of Hitlerjugend camp; essentially a propaganda and fun-filled boot camp for kids. Like the first day of school, excitement is often tempered with trepidation. This is when his cartoonish imaginary version of Hitler (Taika Waititi) pops up to offer encouragement and (bad?) advice.
Enthusiastic as he may be in concept, Jojo doesn’t fit in with the other fascist kids. His kind heart quickly makes him a target. When instructed to demonstrate his dedication to the cause by killing a rabbit, he instead sets it free and runs off crying, as his peers mockingly dub him “Jojo Rabbit.” Jojo’s life quickly goes from bad to worse as he learns that his single mother may be harboring a Jew in their home.
There are so many ways this film could have gone wrong. Even when you know what to expect the ridiculous portrayal of the Nazis is a bit unsettling at first. We’re so used to seeing them in film as pure villains or Indiana Jones Fodder that it feels wrong to laugh at their silliness. This feeling passes quickly due to a few reasons. The heart of the story is about the boy and the courage it takes to be kind and moral when surrounded by ignorance and hatred. There’s also the realization that racism itself is inherently silly. How ridiculous is it for a human to hate another human they’ve never met based solely on their heritage? The film is based on a much more serious and dramatic book called “Caging Skies.” The author, Christine Leunens, when contrasting the tone of the two cersions explained it saying “It’s often after a laugh that one’s feelings are drawn back to a sense of reality where things aren’t right, into deeper, sadder emotions…”
The already brilliant script is bolstered by incredible performances throughout. Scarlett Johansson gives a heart-wrenching performance as Jojo’s mother who tries to reclaim joy from the little freedoms left in their lives. Thomasin McKenzie, last seen in 2018’s “Leave No Trace” is simply amazing as Elsa, the Jewish girl hiding in their attic. Her scenes with Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) are absolutely enthralling. SR, wonderful as always, goes from being a comic relief character to owning one of the best scenes in the movie.
It may be easiest to wrap up this weird, heartwarming, uplifting film as “Nazi Little Rascals.” Even that sounds ridiculous, but this satire is easily one of the best films of the year and should not be missed.