Early in Jojo Rabbit, the title character is asked by a group of bullies to kill a rabbit in order to prove his courage. When he is unable to do so, they mock him, calling him Jojo Rabbit in a derisive chant. It is suggested to Jojo, however, that the rabbit is actually very brave, as it spends each day facing down danger to find food. Who gives Jojo this encouragement? His imaginary friend, Hitler. Set in the late stages of World War II, Jojo Rabbit follows the perspective of a young Nazi and, against all odds, makes him loveable while satirizing hatred and the idiotic things bigotry enables people to believe.
In Jojo Rabit, Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) is a young German boy who dreams of joining the Third Reich. After he injures himself in a freak accident at Hitler Youth Camp, Jojo settles for running errands such as hanging propaganda for Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell) and Fraulein Rahm (Rebel Wilson). When Jojo discovers that his beloved mother, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson), is hiding a young Jewish woman, Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), in their home he is forced to question his deeply held beliefs about the war.
These characters are portrayed beautifully by the cast. As Jojo, Roman Griffin Davis is earnest and emotional without veering toward cringey. Scarlett Johansson infuses Rosie with a great deal of charm and courage, grounding the early, more shocking parts of the story with much needed maternal wisdom. Countering Jojo’s naivete, Thomasin McKenzie gives Elsa weariness and a subtly portrayed anger. Even as she messes with Jojo’s head, her portrayal of Elsa is as lovely as it is sharp.
Although the film starts out pretty heavily satirical, through the conflicts between Jojo and Rosie and then Jojo and Elsa, the story takes a turn toward a sweet sadness. As Rosie struggles with the disconnect she feels with Jojo over his politics, she hopes that her little boy will grow up to be a good person and that the war will end soon. Elsa, on the other hand, warms to Jojo despite his anti-Semitic ideas, and her melancholy gives the story humanity that balances out the more absurd elements. Often, Jojo Rabbit is similar to a Wes Anderson movie or the TV series Moone Boy, but along with the silliness and whimsy, there is also a lot of depth.
The film also uses Jojo’s innocence to make its message and its humor resonate. For example, Elsa tells him that he isn’t a Nazi, he’s just a ten-year-old boy who wants to wear a uniform and belong to a club. The statement stings Jojo, but puts his politics and the propaganda he believes in stark relief. Periodically, Jojo runs into his friend Yorki (Archie Yates) and the two boys hug. Their sweet and childlike embrace stands in comical contrast to the escalating military situations Yorki is thrown into as the German army crumbles.
The film’s satire of white supremacy is timely and effective, due in large part to how willing the film is to go to dark places. Jojo interrogates Elsa about “her people” and she tells him ridiculous things like that Jews sleep hanging from the ceiling like bats, and that they can all read each other’s minds. Jojo is willing to believe these things and worse because of the antisemitic ideas he has been fed. They sound ridiculous for sure, but through this dynamic between Jojo and Elsa, the film makes clear points about how these stupid ideas can be insidious.
Jojo Rabbit features several elements that genuinely do not sound like they would work, but they come together for a sweet and darkly funny satire. I rate it 4 of 5 stars.
Jojo Rabit was directed and written by Taika Waititi, based on the novel by Christine Leunens. It runs 108 minutes and is rated PG-13 for mature thematic content, some disturbing images, violence, and language.