2019 TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: With a filmography that includes such heartwarming comic gems as “Thor: Ragnorak” and “Hunt for the Wilderpeople”, Taika Waititi is hardly a director who comes to mind when you think of Adolf Hitler and the Holocaust. The traumatic genocide of Jews certainly doesn’t lend itself to his trademark offbeat sense of humor. Yet in one of the year’s most daring directorial achievements, Waititi keeps his distinctive voice in tact with “Jojo Rabbit,” a poignant anti-war satire that is also his funniest film to date.
Waititi’s voice is literally prominent in “Jojo Rabbit,” when he takes on the role of Adolf Hitler. But this version of Hitler exists only in the mind of Jojo Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis), a fanatical member of the Hitler Youth. As Jojo undergoes the daunting training process to join the German war effort, this imaginary Hitler becomes his personal cheerleader and best friend. Jojo is terrified of the violence of war—his peers give him the nickname rabbit Jojo Rabbit—but he is driven by his indoctrinated hate toward the Jewish people. Jojo’s worldview is about to be turned upside down, though, when he finds a Jewish girl (played by Thomasin McKenzie) hiding in his own home.
Hitting the ground running with the madcap energy of a screwball comedy, “Jojo Rabbit” gets you laughing from the very first scene. Waititi’s extraordinary script establishes the wacky relationship between Jojo and Hitler, and the quick-witted banter between Davis and Waititi is a delight to watch. Their riotous physical comedy and biting sarcasm truly set the tone for the rest of the film.
Indeed, “Jojo Rabbit” will have you laughing so hard that you may feel guilty for trivializing its sensitive subject matter. In particular, Waititi’s fictional Hitler feels so non-threatening and amusing that he becomes almost likable. And with the colorful sets, costumes and supporting characters, you may be inclined to think that Waititi is depicting the Nazi cause with light-hearted revisionism.
But as we are introduced to Jojo’s mother (played by Scarlett Johannson) and her secret protection of the “enemy,” the harsh reality of war hits home and Jojo’s eyes are gradually opened. The scenes between Davis and McKenzie are brilliant, deftly using humor to highlight the absurdity of propaganda while also exploring its devastating effects on humanity. In doing so, “Jojo Rabbit” makes for an unexpectedly appropriate double feature with “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.” Much like Fred Rogers influenced children with a message of kindness, “Jojo Rabbit” shows how Adolf Hitler’s evil rhetoric was able to warp young minds. Yet through Waititi’s clever satire, “Jojo Rabbit” arrives at the same timely, heartwarming conclusion as Marielle Heller’s humanist drama. Love and understanding can conquer our deepest fears and hate.
“Jojo Rabbit” is distributed by Fox Searchlight via Walt Disney Studios and opens in select theaters October 18.