By Richard Ades
Those who hate war, prejudice and mass murder rightly view Adolf Hitler as one of history’s foremost villains. So it comes as a shock when a seemingly kind-hearted version of the dictator serves as a German boy’s imaginary friend in Jojo Rabbit.
Set in the chaotic final months of World War II, the dark comedy centers on the struggles of Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis), who lives with his mother (Scarlett Johansson) following the disappearance of his soldier/father under mysterious circumstances.
Jojo is a true believer in the Nazi cause and is looking forward to attending a government-run training camp for youths as the story opens. Once there, however, the 10-year-old balks at a demand that he prove his combat readiness by killing a defenseless rabbit. His refusal turns him into an object of ridicule by the instructors and everyone else.
Everyone that is, except the supportive friend that only he can see. Hitler (Taika Waititi) assures Jojo that he did the right thing and says he will be a better soldier than all the others if he learns to emulate rabbits’ survival instincts. “Be the rabbit,” he counsels the boy.
Directed by Waititi (Thor: Ragnarok), who adapted the story from Christine Leunens’s novel, Jojo Rabbit often functions as a satirical reflection on authoritarianism and prejudice. When the imagined Hitler isn’t soothing Jojo’s spirits, he’s parroting the party line on the supposedly horned and subhuman creatures known as Jews. It’s something Jojo and his real-life friend Yorki (Archie Yates) have long heard and mostly accept, even though it doesn’t always jibe with what they’ve witnessed for themselves.
Then Jojo happens to venture into an upstairs room while his mother is out and is horrified to learn she’s been hiding a Jewish teenager named Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie). As a loyal Nazi, he feels obligated to turn her in, but Elsa warns him that doing so will land his mother in trouble with the authorities. Elsa also thwarts his attempt to overpower her by deftly snatching away his party-issued knife. She’s like a “female, Jewish Jesse Owens,” Hitler later comments, sharing the boy’s indecision over how to handle the situation.
The resulting stalemate between Jojo and Elsa gradually becomes the central core of the story, taking it in new and emotionally charged directions thanks to sincere portrayals by actors Davis and McKenzie. Most of the other cast members also give carefully gauged performances, including Sam Rockwell as an eccentric German officer and Rebel Wilson as the gung-ho Fraulein Rahm. The one exception is Johansson, who never quite comes to life as Jojo’s secretive mother.
As for Waititi, he does fine in the on-screen portion of his triple contribution, making the imaginary Hitler humorously boyish without ignoring the danger he represents. As the screenwriter and director, he allows occasional sections of the film to fall flat, but he’s on target more often than not.
Given that its subject is the prime evil of the 20th century, it’s likely that not everyone will be comfortable with this quirky tale. But for those who can get into the spirit, it’s a subversive experience with an unexpectedly effective payoff.
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Jojo Rabbit (PG-13) opens Oct. 31 in Columbus at the Drexel Theatre, Gateway Film Center, AMC Lennox Town Center 24 and Crosswoods Cinema.