Before 2017, the name Taika Waititi didn’t cause much of a reaction among many people. That year, though, “Thor: Ragnarok” hit theaters. The film was directed by Waititi, a mostly indie film director up until that point, and became a huge hit, turning one of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s most boring characters into one of its most loved. This feat shot the New Zealand director way up in terms of popularity. After “Ragnarok”, Waititi went back to the indie film industry for his next project. The idea of another Waititi-directed feature already had people’s eyebrows raised, but when the subject matter of his next film was revealed, that excitement became much more cautious. The film was “Jojo Rabbit”, and it would follow a young boy in Nazi Germany with the director himself playing the role of Adolf Hitler. To try and alleviate some of the controversy surrounding this choice, the movie’s trailers and posters heavily marketed it as a satire.
Lesser directors could have made a comedy featuring Hitler and Nazis into a very offensive and uncomfortable experience, but Waititi somehow makes the concept work. The film takes place during the waning time of World War II and focuses on a 10-year-old boy named Johannes “Jojo” Betzler. He is a firm believer in the Nazi regime and worships Hitler to the point that he has an imaginary friend version of Hitler played by Waititi himself. Early in the film, Jojo discovers a Jewish girl hiding in his house, and he struggles to decide whether to turn her over to the authorities.
Rarely does a movie make you go through so many different emotions. Prior to “Jojo”, the last movie to make me feel so many different ways was “Avengers: Endgame”, but it had 11 years and 21 movies worth of build-up. “Jojo”, on the other hand, only has an hour and forty-eight minutes, but it utilizes that time well, making you care deeply for every character on screen. Every character is acted impeccably well. The movie features the big screen acting debut of two individuals: Roman Griffin Davis, who plays the lead, Jojo; and Archie Yates, who plays Jojo’s best friend, Yorki. Both kids play their roles wonderfully, and they truly sell their characters’ devotion to the Nazi cause with their childish innocence and naivete. Davis especially puts on a show as he questions everything he had blindly believed when he finds the Jewish girl in his house. Elsa, played by Thomasin McKenzie, bounces well off Jojo. The interactions between the two start off tense but gradually grows into a sweet relationship, as Jojo’s views are widened.
What holds some of Jojo’s development back, however, is his imaginary Hitler. Waititi plays this Hitler off as a buffoon, without being too mocking or derivative, so that his character truly feels like the dark part of Jojo’s conscience. The director is well known for taking supporting roles in his film, as he plays the large rock creature, Korg, in “Ragnarok.” Jojo’s mother, played by Scarlett Johansson, acts as an opposing viewpoint to Hitler. Some of the sweetest and most powerful moments of the film are between Jojo and his mother, since she is so saddened by her innocent child being spoiled by war. She tries desperately to bring out the bright boy within him.
Other supporting actors include Sam Rockwell and Rebel Wilson. Rockwell plays a German soldier reluctantly put in charge of training the Nazi youth. He realizes the futility of the war at this point, yet still must put on a face in front of the cadets, so Rockwell’s performance is filled with hilarious cynicism. Wilson plays a sort of assistant to Rockwell and has some great comedic moments across the film as well.
One of the many ways “Jojo” differentiates itself from other films set during World War II is in its presentation. It is beautifully shot, and its colors are vibrant. Many of the shots in the film could be used as screensavers, and each one feels like it was meticulously thought out before it was filmed. For instance, many of the scenes between Jojo and his mother are framed so that Jojo’s eyes are level with her shoes. This framing choice pays off to breathtaking effect later in the film. Its use of color is also incredible. Each building in Jojo’s hometown is colored differently. The interior of Jojo’s house, as well as the clothing worn by his mother, also vary considerably. Later on in the film, though, as the Allied forces push further into German territory, the colors in the town become more muted, symbolizing the war making its way to Jojo.
The film delivers a timeless and relevant message on how we as people form our biases. Since Jojo is brainwashed by the Nazi mindset, he believes ridiculous “facts” about Jews, like that they have horns and can read people’s minds. During his early confrontations with Elsa, he is completely unwilling to believe any of the things she tells him about what Jews are really like. That's because they go against everything he had been told. This leads Elsa to initially humor Jojo’s superstitions and give a humorous reason as to how rabbis get earplugs. In time, as Jojo gets to know Elsa, his wall crumbles, and he begins to judge her based on how she really is, not on how people tell him to judge her. Near the end of the film, as Jojo and Yorki are setting up defenses around their city in preparation of the Allies attacking, Jojo voices his concerns about what will happen to Elsa, but Yorki brushes it off. He states that Jews are not that big of a deal anymore and that the real monsters are the Russians and Englishmen. He goes on to say outlandish claims about the new enemies that are just as absurd as those previously used for Jews.
Unfortunately, since “Jojo” is an indie film, it has nowhere near the budget of a movie like “Ragnarok.” This means its release window is much more limited, and it isn’t showing in as many theaters, which is a real shame. This is a movie that deserves to be watched by everyone. The care and dedication that went into it can be felt. When this movie is eventually released for home video and streaming, I can’t recommend it enough. In this contentious and political climate we live in, the importance of treating people like people has never been more important.