Lest anyone misunderstand, Jojo Rabbit is being advertised as an “anti-hate satire.” The message is driven home in the very first scene, where we meet a Nazi youth who is being indoctrinated by Adolf Hitler himself. Filmmaker Taika Waititi plays Der Fuehrer as a farcical figure, except for moments when he gets carried away by his own bombast.
That’s the marvel of Jojo Rabbit, which ricochets from outlandish comedy to drama and back again in the blink of an eye. Waititi makes Hitler and his lieutenants look ridiculous but never mocks the impact of their ugly regime.
That’s where 11-year-old Roman Griffin Davis comes in. He is exceptional as the impressionable boy who comes to idolize Hitler. Along the way, his worldview is reshaped by his loving mother (Scarlett Johansson) and a Jewish girl (Thomasin McKenzie.)
Jojo Rabbit covers the expanse of emotions one would expect to find in a dramatic film about Germany in the waning days of World War II. By focusing on an innocent child and seeing the story through his eyes Waititi humanizes the experience of living under Nazism.
It’s a dazzling achievement from a supremely talented artist who wrote, directed and costars in the film. His young leading man successfully carries the picture, but he is surrounded by a superior cast. Another newcomer, Archie Yates, is hilarious as Jojo’s best friend. Sam Rockwell deserves special mention for portraying an S.S. officer who is alternately threatening and laughable. To elicit laughter and shock in the same picture is no small achievement.
Waititi, who is Jewish, has said that he’s concerned that young people don’t know about this era and the evil that Hitler represented. Given the world we live in, this audacious fable couldn’t be timelier.