Taika Waititi has had something of a breakthrough in the past couple of years. Now a director and actor for both the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Star Wars, Waititi has entered the mainstream, with full-fledge nerd-cred. For me, though, he will always be a part of the team that blessed the world with the criminally underseen What We Do In the Shadows (2014). Waititi returns to his smaller-budget roots with Jojo Rabbit, a tragicomedy about a little boy who just wants to be the best little Nazi he can, with stellar young performers.
Now, if you are unfamiliar with the premise for the film, that last line probably made you pause. Jojo Rabbit centers on Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis), a Nazi-in-training whose imaginary friend is Adolf Hitler (Taika Waititi). A true fanatic, Jojo, is shocked to discover a young Jewish girl in his home, who was hidden by his mother, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson). Jojo begins to question those in his life and the meaning of hatred. Now, without having seen the movie, you can probably guess where this all leads. There are not really any thematic surprises here, though the plot does hold some heartbreaking turns I was not expecting. For obvious marketing reasons, trailers and advertisements for the film already told you the movie is an “anti-hate satire,” instead of, say, “the funniest Nazis you’ve seen all year.” You know going in that Jojo is going to learn that hate is wrong and built on fabrication. However, the journey to that message allows for a great deal of audacious jokes and sweet moments.
Normally, I don’t like child actors. I wish I wasn’t as judgmental as I am, but here we are. I don’t think children can bring much emotional depth to the screen and typically I feel like I can point out each gesture and inflection instructed off-camera by the director. There are exceptions (the gang on Stranger Things, early-GOT Maisie Williams, Baby Yoda), but I am definitely not the one to hype up a child’s awards-campaign. Unless we are discussing the kids in Jojo Rabbit. Roman Griffin Davis plays Jojo with such earnestness that you really are able to see the world through his naïve eyes. Davis displays relatively strong comedic timing for someone so young, delivering witty ironies with ease. The script also serves Davis well by allowing him to act like an actual child. So many movies and television series that do employ child characters ask them to act like they’re much older than they are (which has always been ironic since twenty-somethings typically play high school teens). Not here. Davis gets to scream, throw tantrums, and show true tenderness with his mother. In a film with such talented adult performances—Sam Rockwell’s closeted Nazi captain, Waititi’s bombastic Adolf, and Rebel Wilson’s Rebel Wilson as a Nazi—the true standout of the film is Jojo’s best friend, Yorki, played by Archie Yates. Every time he was on screen, I couldn’t help but smile at his adorableness. Unlike Jojo, Yorki goes into combat, and he has the opportunity to deliver some great lines while at war. Yates saying, “I need a cuddle” after a battle changed me. Leave it Taika Waititi to warm my cold, Professor Snape heart.
- Johansson shines as Jojo’s mother and I expect to see an Oscar nomination with her name on it come January
- “I need a cuddle” is now my go-to line after any and all moments of exerting energy
The Final Tea
A film about Nazis certainly will have a love-it-or-hate-it-ness about it. I know there have been some critics online who worry the movie glorifies Nazism. After watching the film, obvious in its thematic intentions, it would be hard to make a case that it glorifies Nazism in any sense. However, I understand why people might be touchy about such a subject—Nazis are, unfortunately, far timelier a threat than I think most people thought just a couple years back. Perhaps that is why Waititi chose the subject, though it may seem far enough in the past to avoid any question of “too soon,” his message invokes contemporary concern.