By Carolyn Hinds
“It is I, LeClerc!” “Listen very closely, I shall say this only once.” Anyone else a fan of the British satire Allo Allo? These are two phrases from the series that came to mind for me as I watched JoJo Rabbit, the latest comedic offering from writer/director Taika Waititi. And although Jojo Rabbit was also marketed as a satire, it turns out to be much more than that. Note: Spoilers for the movie’s plot may follow.
Opening with a close-up of Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) in his room declaring his allegiance to Hitler the ‘savior of his country’, while dressed in the crisply pressed official Hitler Youth uniform – SS armband included – could be disconcerting for audience members, any unease at seeing such a young boy declaring his love and admiration for such a heinous person, is quickly set aside by the visual of Waititi in an ill-fitting khaki uniform, and speaking with a fake and slightly over-exaggerated German accent. Acting as Jojo’s second conscience, this version of Hitler is an outright buffoon who makes ridiculous suggestions and encourages Jojo to take dangerous risks by challenging his dedication to him and the cause.
The absurdity of using children as mini-soldiers is highlighted when Jojo attends a training camp supervised by Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell). He and his best friend Yorki (Archie Yates) and dozens of other boys are placed in dangerous and potentially fatal situations as tests to show their loyalty. While the boys are taught how to fight like men, girls are told it’s their duty to provide more pure-blooded Aryan babies to boost their population (it’s always been ironic to me that the Nazi idea of genetic perfection is blond hair and blue eyes, two traits that Hitler himself did not possess, but I digress) When Jojo is injured and scarred as a result, it’s obvious that loyalty is unappreciated, and their lives are expendable, but to someone like Jojo this isn’t immediately obvious. Instead, he becomes more determined to show his worth after being placed on desk duty.
The only truly positive influence in Jojo’s life is his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johanssen) who having to be both mother and father, as his is missing, does her best to make their home a respite from the outside world. She sings, dances and during discussions every so subtly tries to encourage her sons to look at things objectively with questions and observations, lest he become defensive. In a city where war is waging and the threat of harm is a reality, Rosie tries to protect Jojo by trying to make their life function as normally as possible, but, this all changes when he discovers a secret shes kept hidden from him.
Purely by accident Jojo finds a Jewish girl, Elsa (Thomasin MacKenzie) hiding in a crawlspace of an upstairs bedroom, and just as he’s about to run and alert the patrol, threatens him with the truth that if he tells, his mother would also be killed as a member of the resistance. With these revelations, everything that Jojo has believed begins to look different.
With the fake accents, parodying of Gestapo officers and Hitler by Waititi, the film could have become bogged down by trying to keep things light, but what helps it feel more well rounded is the developing relationship between Elsa and Jojo and the time spent on giving them their own space as characters. When it comes to casting, Waititi has a knack for finding actors that can play the mix of complicated innocence his young characters possess, and Griffin plays it effortlessly. MacKenzie is great at showcasing Elsa’s vulnerability that she reveals when that defensive facade she uses slips during her conversations with Jojo. Despite her attempts to show a strong exterior to Jojo, she’s still someone who has lost her family, friends and lives in constant fear with an uncertain future as long as the war continues.
Structurally, Jojo Rabbit is evenly paced, and very entertaining, but there are some stumbles mainly in how it gives a specific character an ending that was undeserved, felt forced and uncharacteristic of the film itself. And in one casting misstep Rebel Wilson as Fraulein Rahm is basically just essaying her role of Fat Amy from the Pitch Perfect series again. But that quibble aside, the cast provides engaging performances particularly Yates, who effortlessly exudes natural charm and humor.
When it was first announced that the film would be about a young German boy’s relationship with the most unlikely imaginary friend imaginable, Adolf Hitler, people were perplexed as to how this particular story – based on the novel Caging Skies by Christine Leunens – would translate in a comedic fashion on screen while being sensitive to the horrors of the Holocaust. But Waititi, with his special brand of off-beat humor and sly wit, navigates the complicated subject matter deftly, by crafting a film that is a study on humanity, ethnic identity and friendship.