(No spoilers here. Proceed as you were.)
By Corey Runkel →
Imagine a Beaux Arts mashup of The Great Dictator and Life is Beautiful set within a Moonrise Kingdom prequel. Can’t? Taika Waititi has. Jojo Rabbit finds a small, timid Hitler Youth (the Moonrise Kingdom bit) named Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) in a world much too big for him. Waititi brings the fanaticism and anti-Semitism of Nazi Germany into close quarters by portraying Jojo’s imaginary friend, Adolf Hitler. His portrayal is an incredible use of dramatic irony: we see the craziness of Hitler’s cult of personality and ideology, while the ten year-old sees his idol. Same as any sports star, Jojo’s room is decked out in memorabilia and posters to the Führer’s power.
Waititi, the actor, mirrors Chaplin by lampooning Hitler’s decisions and imitating his manner of speech. All the silliness you’d expect from a ten year-old is there, along with biting jokes for those geopolitically inclined. On a different level, Waititi, the director, channels Life is Beautiful by showing us a world three feet high instead of six. Jojo Rabbit is a coming-of-age tale, with adults tugging at the strings of his life behind some curtain of maturity. These adults are sometimes imbeciles (low-level Nazi soldiers), sometimes courageous (Jojo’s mother, portrayed by Scarlett Johannson), and sometimes both depending on the situation (washed up Captain Klenzendorf, portrayed by Sam Rockwell). They operate formally in the adult realm, which inexorably approaches and darkens Jojo’s world throughout the film, but Waititi, the screenwriter, manages to find great laughs in the childlike tendencies of even the Gestapo. This is not to say that the director makes fun of the culture of fear or terrible tragedy that infected Nazi Germany. He finds laughs in both dark and lighter moments by exposing the ridiculousness of Nazism.
Let me say this again: Jojo Rabbit is hilarious, sharing atmosphere with The Grand Budapest Hotel. And it is because of this childlike urgency and earnestness that the emotional content impresses so thoroughly. It is every bit as solemn as Budapest’s gravest moments, without the reverence. The Gestapo comes, as it always does, for Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), a friend of Jojo’s dead sister living in her room. McKenzie packs emotion to spare. With tenuous power over Jojo as his physical and intellectual superior, she delivers stinging rebukes of Jojo’s indoctrination, while ultimately boxing herself up in his attic. This confinement heightens every interaction with her, and allows her to speak beyond her situation for people in hiding everywhere. Jojo Rabbit navigates conflicting ideas of right and wrong, exploiting the disagreements to heartbreaking, funny, or joyous ends.