JoJo Rabbit, written and directed by Taika Waititi, is a topical comedy about a young boy living in Nazi Germany near the end of the second World War. Along with his imaginary friend Adolf, JoJo does his best to serve is country and his Fuhrer, until he finds that his mother has been harbouring a slightly older Jewish girl in the attic. JoJo Rabbit stars Scarlett Johansen, Sam Rockwell, Rebel Wilson, and Stephen Merchant alongside Waititi himself as Adolf Hitler as supporting characters to Thomasin McKenzie and Roman Griffin Davis.
I was completely unsure what to expect going into JoJo Rabbit. To be fair, it’s about a boy whose imaginary friend is Adolf Hitler with an Australian accent, so who would know what to expect. My reaction was altogether mixed in a way that can actually be split chronologically.
The first half hour or so of the film is quite awful. Awful to the extent that I was regretting go for it to some extent. Very few jokes landed, the rest fell very, very flat, and there was nothing interesting about the story or the characters involved. Once you got over the inherent funniness of a day-camp for Nazi kids (which was really funny for sure but only really lasted a couple minutes), it was unfunny offbeat and cheap, without a lead character, or any supporting characters, that I had a compelling reason to commit to. The whole rabbit thing was a little weak in its attempt at sincerity, and the only comedy was coming from the situation, which wasn’t enough to keep it going for long.
Almost all of that changed as soon as the girl showed up. Her relationship with JoJo was far and away the most interesting thing about the film, elevating it to a new place. Seriously, it’s like someone flipped a switch. The jokes started landing and landing hard, his relationship with his mother got more interesting and important to the story, and JoJo’s character himself finally had a decent conflict for the film to then become about. I should emphasize on the sudden landing of the humour because suddenly the film was hilarious. More importantly, it then became a film about anti-semitism; that predisposition mixed with a childish innocence and desires. That thread takes on a much more real life in the film, making for a lot of wonderfully sweet moments and the heartwarming development of a completely natural, wholesome, and a slightly heartbreaking, relationship.
I don’t know that I was expecting it to be as heartfelt as it was. Thor: Ragnarok, Waititi’s most notable other work, kind of gave me impression that there was going to be a significantly limited amount of actual emotional expression, but I was very much mistaken. Griffin Davis delivers a pretty great performance during the second half of the film, carrying it for sure alongside McKenzie. There’s a very innocent, childish uncertainty about the regime he’s under, which doubles for an actually relatively sophisticated depiction of the internal struggle of unlearning. The growth of his relationship with a young Jewish girl, from thinking she has horns in her head from all the mind control powers to feeling an innocent love for her, is a wonderfully sweet thing to witness, aside from the humor. Parallel to that, his dynamic with his mother is something to watch as well. Johansson definitely deserved as Oscar nomination, delivering on a pretty complex character who’s essentially trying to mother two children in this film.
The humor, on the other hand, ranges from dark to a little adult actually. This is by no means a kids film. In moments the film strays away from everything and turns pitch-dark. I shouldn’t go into too much detail, don’t want to spoil, but there were a few moments during scenes with JoJo and his mother where I was actually curious as to why a shot or two lingered on her shoes. Anyone who’s seen it knows exactly what I’m talking about. That revelation actually led to a pretty big plot-hole in my eyes; for the period of time after, I’m not entirely sure how Jojo just kind of…survives? Like how they don’t seem to ever run out of gas in Zombieland, this was a plot point that they didn’t really address. There seemed to be quite a bit of time between that and the eventual climax. I’m stepping around the slight plot twist because I didn’t add a spoiler warning on this review, so anyone whose seen the film hopefully knows what I mean.
Whether or not I recommend JoJo is a complicated question with an uncomplicated answer: yes, I do. However, be prepared for an unspectacular opening. They turn it around, in rather spectacular fashion, I might add, but the first half hour or so of the movie is actively not good in my opinion. It really does become something a little bit special though, affirming, even. All in all, JoJo is a fun, hilarious, and at the same time sweet and innocent film about Jewish persecution at the hands of the Nazis in Germany during the second World War. Ever did I imagine writing that sentence.
Edit: Post the Oscars, and this film winning best Adapted Screenplay, I ought to mention that the film is adapted from a book called Caging Skies. I wasn’t pleased about the Oscar win until I read about Caging Skies and realized that the book is very different from Waititi’s deeply creative spin on the original story. It definitely deserved that Oscar.
Second Edit: I’ve just had the chance to rewatch the film some months after I wrote this review, and my thoughts on the first half hour or so of the film have softened considerably. I still think it gets better as it goes on, but it doesn’t start off in nearly as bad a shape as I recall. I’ve upped my score.
– Aman Datta
Aman’s Score – 83/100 Aryamaan’s Score – 82