REVIEW: Inventive and original, JOJO RABBIT showcases Taika Waititi’s unique voice with one of the year’s best films.


Waititi’s “anti-hate satire” tells a charming and endearing coming of age story with a Calvin and Hobbes flavor, one where Hobbes is a sassy and anachronistic Adolph Hitler, in the final days of occupied Europe in WW2.

Before Taika Waititi exploded into the public consciousness with his work on the critically and culturally acclaimed Marvel film Thor: Ragnarok, his work was already well-known and beloved by independent film audiences. From his early work like Eagle vs. Shark to the well-loved Hunt for the Wilderpeople and indie hit What We Do in The Shadows, Waititi is known for his penchant for utilizing magical realism in his work to tell interesting and endearing character-driven dramas infused with folksy comedy. His latest film, Jojo Rabbit, fits warmly into that oeuvre, telling us the story of young Johannes “Jojo” Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis), a lonely 10-year-old boy with a vivid imagination who imagines himself as the ideal Hitler Youth recruit during the closing days of World War 2. His fantasies about joining the Fuhrer’s personal guard as egged on by his imaginary friend, Adolph Hitler (Taika Waititi), who appears to him in moments of crisis or decision to help him make decisions. The banter and relationship between Jojo and Hitler, is not unlike that between the comic strip characters Calvin and Hobbes, with Hitler encouraging Jojo to make the best decisions as Jojo struggles to make friends and become popular. This comes to a head when Jojo goes off to a Hitler Youth retreat run by Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell), a wounded and disgraced former Nazi captain who know runs the camps as something of a punishment. Here, Jojo is humiliated by the other kids and earns the nickname of Jojo Rabbit due to a moment of moral terror he experiences at the hands of the older kids. Jojo tries to recover by showing off his grenade lobbing skills, only to be injured when one accidentally goes off near him. He becomes relegated to doing small tasks for the local Nazi command in his town and it is after a day of doing this that he realizes his worst nightmare; a Jew named Elsa (Thomasin Mackenzie) is hiding in his house, right under his and his mother Rosie’s (Scarlett Johannson) noses. The greatest aspects of his nightmare; Elsa seems like a real person, not the demons he has been taught to believe that all Jews are. Even worse, he’s starting to get a funny feeling in his stomach the more time he spends with her, like butterflies welling up in him. Could it be he is falling for her? What will Adolph think?

The Nazi setting of the film is largely a veneer to tell Jojo’s coming of age story as he learns to eschew blind fanaticism and learn to get to know people on their own terms, not an ethos of intolerance. The Nazis are largely stereotypical buffoons so we see them as misguided and ignorant. Jojo is presented as something of a precocious narcissist when we first meet him, but he is gradually humanized by his exposure to Elsa and his mother teaching him that freedom and autonomy are more important and vital than warfare and hatred. Scarlett Johannson is great in her role as Jojo’s mother Sophie, a free spirit who tries to instill right in him while dealing with the loneliness and dread of the situation in which she finds herself. Her character is very reminiscent of Roberto Benigni’s Guido in the 1997 film Life is Beautiful, which this film has a lot in common in finding innocence and humanity in occupied Nazi Europe, with a dash of the fantastic and magical realism present in Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. Similarly, Sam Rockwell’s character starts as something of a comedic one-note but becomes a fully realized character by the end of the film. Rockwell and Johannsen give excellent performances that feel fully realized and invested. Newcomer Thomasin Mackenzie makes the film come to life as Elsa as newcomer Roman Griffin Davis captures the film the same way that Julian Dennison did in Hunt for the Wilderpeople.

Jojo Rabbit is one of the year’s best films, an exemplary piece of work that deftly balances dark comedy and heartwarming drama in one of the most unique films to come out in 2019.