Jojo Rabbit aims to tackle the difficult subject matter blind devotion and a coming-of-age film with grace and comedic flair that just works.
Director: Taika Waititi
Summary: A young boy in Hitler's army finds out his mother is hiding a Jewish girl in their home.
The coming-of-age story paired with the imaginary friend trope is as old as it comes but there are always different ways to approach it. In this case, director Taika Waititi decided the best way to address this is to go all the way to 11 and embrace it whole hog. We're in Germany late in the second World War and Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) is the kind of precocious young boy we see in a lot of these movies. He has an imaginary friend and being as patriotic as he is that imaginary friend comes in the form of Adolf Hitler (Waititi). Jojo's Adolf is the kind of happy and supportive imaginary friend we see all the time, the Hobbs to Jojo's Calvin, but the juxtaposition of it being Hitler is part of the shock value. It also gives us insight into what kind of little boy Jojo is.
The point, ultimately, comes down to the fact that there isn't anything that remarkable about Jojo. He's exactly the right age and temperament to buy completely into the propaganda that Nazism was putting out at this point in the war. He's just a normal little kid except for the fact that he is convinced that all Jews are evil monsters that are trying to kill him. That changes when he meets Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) a young Jewish girl that Jojo's protective mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) is trying to keep safe. Being so close to the perceived "enemy" is a bit of a wake-up call for Jojo and the reality of the world around him comes like a kick in the teeth.
That aforementioned gut punch is one of the reasons that Jojo Rabbit works as well as it does. By the time the third act rolls around the movie isn't being subtle at all because there isn't any need to be. Jojo has had his wake up call and it's like the whole world around him shifts as his perspective of the world changes. The world has been collectively looking for ways to cope with the horrors of World War II since the moment the war ended and there have been a few people calling Waititi out for this approach. He is far from the first filmmaker to make Hitler look silly but what makes Jojo Rabbit so well is the human element. We aren't just seeing Hitler we're seeing Hitler through the eyes of a young boy who has complete faith in the institution he's involved in.
The performances put on by the entire cast are all uniformly good. Davis is asked to do a lot as Jojo and it's not an easy role to take on. He plays it effortlessly and we never stop liking him even when he's running around being a good little mini Nazi which is hard to pull off. McKenzie also puts in a great performance as Elsa as she both messes with Jojo and also endears herself to him. We see a terrified young woman who is battling that fear by teasing Jojo like a little brother. Johansson plays a loving mom who is conflicted by her own morals and keeping her son safe above all else. And supporting players Sam Rockwell, Rebel Wilson, and Alfie Allen all do very interesting things with the small roles that they are given. As for Waititi as Hilter, he's always goofy, always over the top, and always funny. When Jojo's reality shifts so does Waititi's version of Hitler and he plays that shift flawlessly.
Jojo Rabbit is one of those movies that is going to drive a lot of people away because of the concept alone. However, it's a wonderfully funny movie that keeps a good pace and never feels boring. The shift toward the end of the second act is a gut punch and it makes the end of the movie all the more powerful for it. A lot of movies couldn't handle that kind of tonal shift but Jojo Rabbit handles it flawlessly.