Making fun of Nazis might seem like an obvious joke, but Jojo Rabbit effectively brings both heart and darkness to the reality of Nazi Germany during World War II.
Beyond the satire lies a touching story of friendship and the human condition. This is Thomasin McKenzie and Roman Griffin Davis’ story through and through. As ten-year-old Hitler Youth-bound Jojo, Davis brings great comedic timing and sureness that comes with childhood. Steeped in the ideologies of his country, Jojo exhibits how propaganda can seep into the minds even at an early age to spread fear of those who are different from us. While a lot of Jojo’s remarks toward McKenzie’s Elsa, a young Jewish girl hiding in the walls of Jojo’s house, are abhorrent, in the context of the film, they’re mostly played for laughs. It’s only in Elsa’s carefully concealed emotions, the unshed tears and tightly controlled anger that speaks to how awful what Jojo says really is. In this way, we can dismiss the ideologies of Nazism while placing the people who suffered front and center, and making their story the only ones that truly mattered.
But that’s precisely why director Taika Waititi succeeds so well with Jojo Rabbit. It’s not the gimmick of him playing Jojo’s imaginary friend Adolf Hitler, but it’s in the way Waititi has chosen to come at this particular topic. By placing the emotional brunt of the film on two children, Jojo Rabbit immediately becomes a story about hope. Watching Jojo break free of his prejudices is proof it’s possible, if we all just take a moment to listen to each other and understand each other. As Jojo gradually lets go of his blind patriotism, his humanity and compassion begin to take hold. It’ll be easy to dismiss his shedding of hatred on his youth — Elsa and Jojo’s mother, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson), often do — but it doesn’t mean it’s not impossible for everyone, as evidenced in the adults in Jojo’s life throughout the film.
Waititi, while he isn’t prancing around as Hitler, pays remarkable attention to the experiences and viewpoints of young children. Despite a few scenes, we’re living in Jojo’s world the entire time, and certain camera angles and shots speak to that, with harrowing effects later on in the film. Still, a level of depth is reached with Rosie and Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell), but, again, it mostly exists in the background as a way to bolster Jojo and Elsa’s own journey.
The Nazi jokes deliver every time, but by the end of the film, you’ll be more moved by the strength of the human spirit and the friendship between two kids and the power of dance.