By now you should have figured out that I am the type of person that has a lot of FEELINGS. Today’s feelings will be brought to you by the propaganda machine that is Twitter. I have been reading about Jojo Rabbit for a while now. Everything I have read has been about how problematic the film is. I had read complaints ranging from the comedy is stale and gets old after the first ten minutes to the fact that the female characters were underwritten and underutilized throughout. As you can imagine, after months of reading this crap, I was quite cynical when we went to see an early morning showing of Jojo Rabbit yesterday. Essentially, I was there because it has been a while since I had written a negative review and it sounded like fun.
If you haven’t figured out where this is going yet, let me just get to it. This will not be a negative review. I had a really great time watching this film. Don’t get me wrong, there were issues I had. But, overall, it was fun and had a worthwhile message. JoJo Rabbit is about a ten-year-old Hitler Youth member (Roman Griffin Davis) who’s imaginary friend is Adolf Hitler. The story follows Jojo as he attends the Hitler Youth camp and in time learns that things around him aren’t as simple as they seem. Based on this description alone, this film had the potential to be an offensive dumpster fire. Instead, we’re gifted with a funny and poignant story that very much relates to the world today.
The story starts out very light and whimsical. Yes, I just used the term whimsical to describe a movie about Nazis. Honestly, the way it is shot and the color palette give the first half of this film major Moonrise Kingdom vibes. At a certain point, the story does take a much darker turn. Given the era this film is set in; you really cannot have this story without at least acknowledging the very dark things happening at the time. I think this dark turn was also necessary for character development reasons. As with most reviews, I am purposefully being coy. I promise not to spoil anything.
In my opinion, the women of this cast really give the best performances. Don’t get me wrong, Roman Griffin Davis, Sam Rockwell, Alfie Allen, and Taika Waititi all shine. But this is really Thomasin McKenzie and Scarlett Johansson’s film. Thomasin McKenzie plays a very dynamic character that grounds the film, preventing it from being too light. Scarlett Johansson’s character is one I will be thinking about for a long time. She initially just seems like a supportive mother figure trope, but we soon realize there is much more to her.
This leads me to Taika Waititi’s script. The writing is memorable, biting, and often hilarious. There were definite moments of cringeworthy humor when you didn’t want to laugh but just had to. The way he was able to develop these characters in such a succinct and memorable way is remarkable. This film was also just the right length. It knew when enough was enough and ended the right way.
I cannot believe we almost skipped this one at the theater. I think we have all learned a memorable lesson here: trust Twitter for nothing more than cat memes.
I also made the mistake of reading a lot of reviews of JoJo Rabbit before I saw it, and arrived at the theater yesterday expecting to hate this movie. I had a feeling this would be the film that would ruin the Oscar seasons for me. Every year, there’s at least one film that takes home a ton of awards despite being unworthy. Last year there was more than one. In 2017 it was The Shape of Water and in 2016 it was La La Land. I’m relieved to say Jojo Rabbit would not be at home with those overrated titles.
This is a coming of age story, and a controversial one. I can understand people being offended by the premise, but it’s not a film that makes light of the Holocaust. Rather, it mocks the ideas embraced by Nazis (and white supremacists) while depicting the impact propaganda can have on young minds that don’t fully comprehend what their leaders are saying.
The weakest aspect of the script for me is actually the humor. Some of the jokes had me laughing, but others are weak and desperate. Fortunately, the story is compelling and the cast is strong all around. I do not like Rebel Wilson. I don’t know if I have made that clear on this blog before, but just in case, let me reiterate how much I can’t stand Rebel Wilson. That said, I truly enjoyed her small role here, where she plays one of two cartoonish leaders at a Hitler Youth training camp. The other is played by Sam Rockwell, whose performance as Captain Klenzendorf works despite being an almost beat for beat replica of his character in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.
Jojo, played by Roman Griffin Davis, is just likable enough that we stick with him hoping that he’ll realize how evil his idols are, yet his arc unfolds slowly. He says and does some fairly despicable things, at least as despicable as a PG-13 satire about Nazis will let him, and it’s a convincing performance. I agree with Alex though that what left the biggest impact though were supporting appearances by Scarlett Johansson as Jojo’s mother Rosie and Thomasin McKenzie as Elsa, a Jewish girl that Rosie is hiding. McKenzie earned raves last year for her performance in Leave No Trace, and she is magnificent as Elsa.
As for Taika Waititi, he not only directs, but plays Adolf, Jojo’s imaginary version of the infamous figure. There’s some risk that rendering this figure through a young German child’s eyes might make him charming and likable. But Waititi hits the right balance here, adding just the right amount of innocence to Jojo’s imagination while leaving Hitler’s bigotry on full display. Of course the real Hitler was worse, because such evil is not entirely within the grasps of most 10 year olds’ imaginations. I don’t think it’s that much of a spoiler to say that Jojo does have to come to terms with the beliefs held by his supposed friend. There are moments though when I wish Waititi hadn’t tried so hard to make the scenes between Jojo and Adolf funny. For every joke that lands, there are several that fall float or made me roll my eyes. Fortunately, Adolf’s appearances are sprinkled in moderation throughout the film’s rather brisk run time.
Jojo Rabbit is and will always be polarizing. Personally, I think it succeeded at being funny and mocking Nazis without being disrespectful to those who lost their lives or loved ones in the Holocaust. There are dark and somber moments in this film that I won’t discuss because I want to avoid spoilers. The script never lets the audience go too long without being reminded of the atrocities being committed. It’s a film that earns it’s lightness by acknowledging the darkness.
There was enough about Jojo Rabbit that didn’t work for me that it’s unlikely to land on my year end top 10 list. It’s not hard for me to think of 10 films that I was more impressed with in 2019. It’s still a good film though and I think if you like dark comedy, or if you like Waititi’s previous work, this is worth seeing.