Jojo Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis) is the kind of adorable ten-year-old that parents dream of having. He’s smart, funny, and has a heart of gold. In 2019, Jojo would spend his days watching Marvel movies, playing Fortnite, and hosting a Twitch stream. But Jojo lives in Germany in the year 1944, and he devotes his boyish energy to serving his country as part of the Hitler Youth.
Hitler’s spectre looms large over Jojo’s childhood. So large, in fact, that the dictator appears as Jojo’s imaginary friend (played with aplomb by the film’s daring writer/director Taika Waititi). Jojo’s Hitler is everything a kid wants from a best friend; a supportive “voice of reason” who has your back no matter what.
What’s brilliant about the film’s conceit is that Hitler springs out of a young boy’s myopic view of the adult world. His Hitler knowledge is limited to propaganda posters and urban legends. So, if you’re ten, imaginary Hitler is a dope hang. He possesses a childish sense of humour and spends his nights dining on unicorn meat. What’s not to love?
Jojo is pumped to serve Germany as part of the Hitler Youth. And his first order of business is ridding his country of “nasty Jews.” But when he discovers his mother is hiding a Jewish teenager named Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) in their attic, the revelation rocks his world. Elsa is nothing like the devil-horned caricatures that his leaders warned him about. Suddenly, Jojo is torn between honouring his country by turning in Elsa and keeping her presence a secret.
Jojo Rabbit is one of 2019’s great cinematic pleasures. Waititi does an excellent job balancing the film’s tones, shifting between whimsy and melancholy with expert precision. This is a film where the hysterical fits of laughter tee you up for the emotional bomb blasts that explode in your chest during the final stretch. By the time the credits roll Jojo Rabbit will wreck you in the best possible way.
Jojo Rabbit begins like a Wes Anderson film and ends as a grim war movie. I can’t think of another film where frontrunners for the year’s sweetest shot, most heartbreaking shot, and funniest shot were all jam-packed in to the same picture. (This movie will change the way you think about butterlies in your stomanch).
DP Mihai Malaimare Jr. fills the frame with warm lighting and bright colours early on, making Jojo’s adventures look like fond childhood memories. And plenty of classic pop music (including an opening track by The Beatles) adds to the light-hearted vibe. But as the story gets darker, a gloomy colour palette full of greys and blues washes over Jojo’s world. And Michael Giacchino’s score gets crushingly solemn as things get dour.
Waititi amassed a murderer’s row of talent for this picture. And it all starts with newcomer Roman Griffin Davis, who takes us on a captivating emotional journey. Davis’ performance comes across as smart and full of sass but never obnoxious, and adorable, even when he’s all about that Nazi life. His ebullient screen presence and sharp comedic timing make him the perfect mouthpiece for Waititi’s brand of humour. And Davis’ bountiful charm keeps viewers in his corner, even when we don’t agree with his actions.
Waititi steals scene after scene going big as cinema’s most lovable version of Hitler – not that there is much competition. You can also expect memorable turns from Scarlett Johansson, Stephen Merchant, and Rebel Wilson. But it’s Sam Rockwell and Thomasin McKenzie who leave the strongest impressions; Rockwell as a weary commander who is so over the war, and McKenzie as the desperate soul who leads Jojo to question everything he thinks he knows.
As Jojo develops a more nuanced understanding of the world, his image of Hitler starts to change. The boy’s idealized imaginary friend transforms into an insufferable bully. With a better understanding of the world, the kid finds it harder to justify worshipping a nationalistic blowhard.
This satirical film depicts the absurdity of blind hatred and does so to hilarious effect. But Jojo Rabbit exists to do more than tell us that it’s wrong to hate. Waititi shows us the world through a child’s eyes so that we understand the power – and the appeal – of jingoism, partisanship, and indoctrination. Jojo Rabbit’s most incisive revelation is one that cancel culture isn’t ready to hear: not everyone who does a terrible thing is a terrible person.