Director Taika Waititi follows-up his (mostly) well-received “Thor: Ragnarok” with an even riskier project: a satirical comedy about WWII, in which he plays… Adolf Hitler. This sounds like a tough sell, especially in these politically correct times. And that’s one of the many charms of “Jojo Rabbit”.
Newcomer Roman Griffin Davis is remarkable as the title character. Jojo is a 10-year-old, Nazi-obsessed German boy. The story is set in the final weeks of WWII. Jojo is on a retreat with dozens of other German boys and girls, learning how to become soldiers. Joining him is his imaginary friend – Adolf. Waititi bounces off the walls as the Fuhrer, delivering loads of cutesy, edgy dialogue.
These first 15 minutes of “Jojo Rabbit” are the film’s weakest. There are too many overly-silly attempts at humor. This is also when we meet Nazi youth instructor Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell). The addition of an overly-cartoonish female assistant (played by Rebel Wilson) doesn’t help.
A training accident ends Jojo’s dream of fighting in the war, and he’s sent home. This is when Scarlett Johansson enters the picture as Jojo’s mother. And a tonal shift begins. Waititi gradually leads us down a more emotionally dramatic path. Scenes of war-obsessed Jojo with his anti-war mom (his father may/may not be off fighting) are endearing. She’s keeping some secrets, but her love for her son, and life, are totally evident.
Jojo’s been brainwashed into hating all Jews. But soon he discovers that his mother is hiding a Jewish girl in their attic. Thomasin McKenzie, so great in 2018’s “Leave No Trace”, is terrific once again as 17-year-old Elsa. The developing relationship between Jojo and Elsa is the emotional heart of the movie.
Waititi allows young Davis to carry “Jojo Rabbit” on his back. And he does an amazing job, handling a variety of situations like a seasoned pro. His scenes with McKenzie are nail-biting, but in a calm, flowing way. This is a rare movie experience, especially coming from young actors. Their natural chemistry is astonishing.
And forget all the “Marriage Story” awards season buzz you’re hearing. This is the Scarlett Johansson performance that needs to be championed. It’s her best non-Black Widow role since “Lost in Translation”.
Waititi does borrow a few style elements from indie god Wes Anderson. And making fun of Hitler/Nazis on-screen isn’t exactly new. But having a 10-year-old boy as your protagonist – now that’s a fresh approach.
Once Waititi makes his true intentions clear (especially in the final act), “Jojo Rabbit” goes from gimmick to gem. This is a bittersweet, free-spirited, and memorable film – spinning the coming-of-age theme on its axis.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, “Jojo Rabbit” gets a B.
Running Time: 108 min.