JoJo Rabbit is both a dark satire and a heartwarming coming of age film. It’s hard to imagine those two very different genres coming together, but writer/director Taika Waititi makes it work.
The film centers on JoJo Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis), a ten-year-old growing up in Germany during World War II. He is obsessed with the Nazi party, so much so that his imaginary friend is Adolf Hitler (Waititi pulling triple duty). This goofy childish version of Hitler urges JoJo on when he feels discouraged or scared. He’s a helpful imaginary friend, aside from being evil of course.
JoJo’s mother, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson), does not share his political views. He discovers that she’s hiding a teenage Jewish girl, Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), behind a wall in their house. He threatens to turn Elsa in, but she warns him that Rosie will be punished as well if that happens. JoJo reluctantly accepts Elsa in his home and learns more about her and Jews in general. He begins to question the teachings of the Nazi party as he forms a friendship with someone who is supposed to be his enemy.
JoJo marks Davis’ film debut. It’s impressive that such a young actor in their first role would be able to handle it so expertly. He’s in almost every scene and carries himself like a seasoned professional. McKenzie and Johansson are equally strong. There’s also a great supporting performance from Sam Rockwell as JoJo’s eccentric instructor.
Over the course of the film we see JoJo grow in ways he wasn’t expecting. Having Elsa thrown into his life allows him to see another viewpoint and to become more compassionate. It’s a touching evolution. Then there’s the satire where Waititi shows how insane and ridiculous the Nazis can be. Some audience members made be offended by having a wacky version of Hitler, but his ideologies are shown to be dangerous as well as buffoonish. You can laugh at him and be repelled at the same time. Waititi expertly combines a mix of emotions and tones in order to create an engaging film.