There are films that come around every now and then that seem to hit all the right notes and impact you in multiple ways. Very few times have I seen a film that can have the audience laughing out loud in one moment, and feeling emotional or sad just 20 seconds later.
Such is the beauty of New Zealand director Taika Waititi’s “JoJo Rabbit” — an absolute triumph of a film and quite possibly the best of 2019.
Set in Nazi Germany during World War II, 10-year-old JoJo (Roman Griffen Davis) is an avid supporter of radical fascist Adolf Hitler, brainwashed by Nazism as he dedicates himself to Hitler’s Youth Army. JoJo is a social outcast – his only friend being Hitler Youth trainee Yorki. JoJo is bullied by his fellow Nazis, unable to find a place or purpose in his setting despite being so dedicated to the Führer and his country.
While sounding strange, JoJo envisions Hitler himself as his personal imaginary friend (played brilliantly and hilariously by writer/director/producer Taika Waititi), who guides him through his difficulties and fills a much-needed void in his socially isolated life.
JoJo’s mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson), on the other hand, is against the Nazi ideology, hiding a Jewish girl named Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) within their walls for protection. Having his world views challenged, young JoJo finds himself caught between his feelings of love for his mother and his surprising friendship with Elsa and his dedication to the only world he has ever known.
This is the type of film that could have very easily turned into an absolute disaster in the wrong hands. So many films are overly ambitious with their outlandish stories that they end up crumbling down in their own goals or come off as pretentious rather than creative.
Taika Waititi does an incredible job of not only tackling this wacky concept for a film, but delivers it in a pitch-perfect fashion that blends humor and heart masterfully. This isn't only the funniest film of the year, but the most heartwarming and moving film as well.
Waititi proves he’s a master of storytelling and assembles a film with humor that isn’t just silly, but witty and profound. Having such daring humor in such a heavy subject matter is a bold move for any filmmaker to take, and the director excels in every bit of making us laugh at something we feel like we shouldn’t be. Sam Rockwell, Alfie Allen (Theon Greyjoy from “Game of Thrones”) and Rebel Wilson provide excellent comedic relief and are consistently hilarious, yet its newcomer Archie Yates as Yorki who proves he’s a comedian in the making.
Yet despite the genuine laugh-out-loud humor, Waititi grounds his film in a deep testament to love and coming-of-age. He doesn’t center his film around Nazi Germany to get a rise out of people or show-off what he can do as a daring artist, but rather uses his story to exert a beautiful tale of love and human growth.
Newcomer Roman Griffin Davis is an acting force to be reckoned with. In what is without a doubt one of the better acting performances by a child that I’ve seen, Davis does a profound job of making audiences of all ages identify with a young child and adore him despite being a follower of Nazism. From start to finish, we’re captivated by this young man’s journey and genuinely want his future to be bright.
We’re able to recognize that JoJo is a sweet young boy, not a vicious Nazi and that he is simply a product of his environment. We’re able to feel for this boy who proves to possess a good heart and for struggling to find his purpose. Davis captures the vulnerability and awkwardness of youth in ways that everyone will be able to relate to and is infectious with his soulful, heartfelt performance. This kid is 10 years old and already deserves his first Oscar nomination.
Scarlet Johansson turns in terrific work as JoJo’s mother and gives the film a sweetness due to her loving nature and motherly tendencies with her son. There are scenes in this film with Johansson that any mother would be able to identify with.
Many have criticized the film for poking fun at such a disturbing time in history where millions of people were killed, but quite frankly those who criticize the film simply don’t understand the satirical brilliance at work. This isn’t a film that is trying to make light of the Holocaust or WWII, but rather uses it as a mechanism to express a story of anti-hatred.
Taikia Waititi — a Jewish man himself — playing Hitler hilariously isn’t in bad taste at all. What better way to insult Hitler than have a Jewish man mock him and make him look like a complete fool? If Hitler saw this film he’d be infuriated, which alone is worth celebrating.
Waititi is brilliantly expressing how brainwashed and pathetic Nazism is and uses JoJo as his protagonist to explore the meaning of love and move away from hate. It’s refreshing to see a film with a bold style that isn’t afraid to be itself and move audiences with its tender story about empathy. Masterful works of cinema like this come around very rarely, making “JoJo Rabbit” a truly once-in-a-lifetime experience.
The second it ended, I wanted it to start back again from the beginning. This is a film that gives you faith not only in the power of cinema but in the beauty of humanity. “JoJo Rabbit” has everything going for it without an issue in sight and is a film you deserve to see.
Final Grade: A+
Dominic LeRose is a writer for The Daily Cardinal. To read more of his work, click here.