Jojo Rabbit is the third feature directed by Taika Waititi wherein he explores adult themes through the eyes of a little boy growing up. The first was Boy back in 2010, followed by Hunt for the Wilderpeople in 2016. In both Boy and Jojo he takes the form of an imaginary friend who happens to be a notorious 20th century figure: Michael Jackson in Boy and Adolf Hitler in Jojo Rabbit (although his use of Jackson is unrelated to the pop star’s more sinister aspects). These apparitions provide solace and guidance to the titular boys, who are growing up with an absentee fathers and coming to grips with an adult world that is much different than they expected. Waititi understands the moral psychology of little boys to a T (which may be why he was a perfect fit for the character of Thor), so it’s understandable he returned to the subject with Jojo.
He must have felt like he had more to say about the world from a child’s perspective. He was right.
Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) is a little German boy toward the end of World War II who wants to be the best Nazi he can be. He lives alone with his mother, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson). His father is on the front lines and his sister, well, we don’t entirely know what happened to her except that she is dead. There’s a lot of sadness in the house, and the Nazi party is the only outlet in town through which Jojo can find meaning and belonging, even if most of his compatriots are terrible to him. Even worse: An injury prevents Jojo from joining the youth brigades, relegating him to office work around an increasingly deserted and beat-down Berlin. Worst yet: His mother is hiding a Jewish girl, Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), in the attic. What’s a good lil’ Nazi to do?
Davis is fantastic as Jojo. He captures the emotional complexity of a 10-year-old whose worldview is static, lifted whole from the world around him but translated into the logic of a boy who probably still fears the dark. He believes Jews have horns and eat babies, for instance. He has no experience, no nuance, no perspective. Maybe it makes him more dangerous.
The Hobbes to Jojo’s Calvin is his imaginary pal Hitler, whom Waititi sends up without minimizing his atrocities. As Jojo gets to know Elsa, he has to confront what he knows about Jews and the world. There’s sweetness to some of their interactions but also frustration and pain. Jojo is a movie about a little boy who wants to be a Nazi, after all. Indoctrination starts with children for a reason.
Johansson also steals the show, once again displaying her talent as a comedic actress with natural instincts. She has a few secrets of her own — particularly her distaste for the Nazis. Her love for her son and her worries about his desire to be a little Nazi are heart-wrenching. How does a mother square these fears? Their chemistry is wonderful. My wife cried.
Waititi doesn’t treat the Nazis as harmless or misunderstood buffoons. He understands the present-day parallels of his story. Not that it’s hard; most of the democracies and world order established by the end of WWII are now crumbling and descending into darkness thanks to leaders who stoke hateful attitudes and the people who love to follow them. Our current predicament is following a tried-and-true historical pattern throughout history. Waititi’s script doesn’t let anyone off the hook — not even Jojo, whose lessons are hard-learned. Even when the Allies come into Berlin … well, war is hell and war is human, and the best you can do in the face of it is try to love as best you can.
“Love conquers all” is a lesson you’ve learned before. Well, that’s not quite the case here. The world still shatters, people die and cities are reduced to rubble. In the end, though, love is still the only thing people have any control over when the chips are down and doing the right thing requires real bravery and compassion. Even if love doesn’t conquer everything, it is the purest aspiration. A good lesson for sensitive little boys who need to be reminded of their better angels more often than we’d like. A good lesson for everyone.
Jojo goes in darker directions than the Wes Anderson-esque advertising indicates. Telling a coming-of-age comedy about a little boy growing up and using the Nazis and the Holocaust is a unique tightrope to walk, to be sure.
Frankly, the premise requires a lot of absurdity to even feel watchable. Waititi’s sense of humor lends itself well — contrasting perfectly with the inherent darkness and offering a bit of a balm once things start to take a nosedive. Not every joke beat lands, but the emotional ones do. They sure do.