Jojo Rabbit Is Hilarious and Heartbreaking
December 2, 2019 | By Audrey Wang, Illustrations by Cindy Zhao
Most kids create imaginary friends to run around with, share jokes with, and even confess feelings to when they’re down. However, not many have Adolf Hitler as their friend of choice. But most kids don’t have to grow up in a fascist regime. Johannes “Jojo” Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis) is a 10-year-old boy who is growing up too fast in the most unstable environment — with his imagination’s incarnation of Hitler (Taika Waititi) as his guide and companion.
Illustration by Cindy Zhao
In Jojo Rabbit, director Taika Waititi’s latest film, Jojo is a big fan of Hitler and attends a Hitler Youth camp led by a disillusioned ex-soldier (Sam Rockwell). The boys learn how to throw axes, burn books, launch grenades, and receive personal knives, all while wearing the red armbands of the Third Reich. It’s a fun summer camp, but the end result of it is war. They’re not going home with knowledge about knots and techniques — they’re going to the battlefield. At home, Jojo has a compassionate mother, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson), and discovers that Rosie has hidden Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), a Jewish girl, upstairs. She hides while Jojo must decide what to do with the supposed enemy of his idol.
A young boy caught up in a situation beyond his years, Jojo has to learn about the world in a fast-tracked way. When he gets to know Elsa, his ideal superhero suddenly doesn’t seem so super anymore, much less a hero. His mother says his father is off serving in the war, but the other kids at camp say he’s abandoned his post. Jojo grapples with his allegiances and faces choices that seem almost impossible to know the answer to at such a young age. Elsa says to him, “You’re not a Nazi, Jojo. You’re a 10-year-old kid who likes dressing up in a funny uniform and wants to be part of a club.”
This movie is great at balancing tone in a classic Waititi way, seen in his previous films: Hunt for the Wilderpeople, What We Do In The Shadows, and Thor: Ragnarok. Waititi switches from hilarious to sincere all in one conversation, harmonizing these two subject matters into one. As funny and charming as it is, Waititi remembers the levity of the situation and still focuses on the serious subject at hand, dealing with the complexities of growing up and making the right decisions. The comedy is entertaining and smart but does not discredit the monstrosities of what happened in this time period and the human toll it took.
Part of what sells the film so much are the committed performances. With this talented ensemble, the world, as absurd as it is, feels too real. Johansson melts into her role of the compassionate mother trying to raise Jojo single-handedly, while struggling to find her son underneath the uniform. Her wistful glances and faraway eyes burn all the troubles that she has gone through into a look that Jojo won’t understand until he’s older. Rockwell, Rebel Wilson, and even Waititi himself all have great timing and their commitment to the world keeps the laughter coming and the tears flowing — often at the same time.
It is utterly undeniable that this is a Waititi film. It’s all heart, soul, and passion, and Waititi tells yet another sweet story about growing up and learning the only way we can: headfirst.