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Review: 'Jojo Rabbit' laughs in the face of fascism to better understand it

Roman Griffin Davis and Taika Waititi in the film JOJO RABBIT. Photo by Kimberley French. © 2019 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

Roman Griffin Davis and Taika Waititi in the film JOJO RABBIT. Photo by Kimberley French. © 2019 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved Kimberley French / Twentieth Century Fox

It’s totally normal for a kid to have an imaginary friend—unless that friend is, say, Adolf Hitler.

In real life, a child play-palling around with the king of Nazi shitheads would be not only weird but objectively horrifying. So of course director Taika Waititi found a way to make it funny.

A self-billed anti-hate satire, Jojo Rabbit tells the story of Johannes “Jojo” Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis), a 10-year-old boy so brainwashed by Nazi propaganda that his passions manifest as an immature and cartoonish Hitler (Waititi wearing some truly disturbing blue contact lenses). Jojo’s fanaticism propels him through Hitler Youth camp, yet his kind heart and absent father—a guy some have labeled a deserter—stir up feelings of inadequacy.

Bestie Hitler pops in now and again to offer pep talks and cigarettes, but when Jojo injures himself and discovers a Jewish girl (Thomasin McKenzie) who his mother (Scarlett Johansson) has been hiding in their home, neither the boy nor his imaginary Führer knows what to do.

After Disney’s acquisition of Fox earlier this year, rumors swirled that Mouse execs were uncomfortable adding this film to the stable. However, there’s nothing so objectionable in Jojo Rabbit that suggests potential discomfort would impact its release, or that audiences should be concerned about the movie. Presenting subject matter as delicate as the Holocaust and Nazism with a comedic slant is bound to upset some, but there’s always method to Waititi’s madness.

And his irreverence is, of course, motivated here. To lampoon “The Third Reich” is to defang it, and while doing so in 2019 may seem like beating a dead horse, Waititi’s clearly looking to draw modern parallels. Jojo Rabbit enters into the long tradition of Nazi-mocking—from Charlie Chaplin to Hogan’s Heroes—in an effort to not only laugh in the face of contemporary fascism but to better understand it. While we may be a ways off from children learning laughably bullshit facts about Others in school or being armed for battle like Jojo and his buddy Yorkie (Archie Yates), it would be wonderful to never reach that point.

To that end, eyeing Nazi Germany through an indoctrinated kid offers plenty of food for thought. Yes, Jojo Rabbit is funny—but like Waititi’s larger body of work it’s also incredibly heartfelt. From Boy to Hunt for the Wilderpeople and even Thor: Ragnarok, he’s proven better than anyone at sussing out boyhood insecurities and/or father issues and relating them to a bigger picture. It goes without saying that Nazism is bad, but a failing of too many World War II-era movies is a reluctance to explore any shade of gray beyond that. Nazis are often shown as one-dimensional good-guy cannon fodder or automatons in search of occult relics, and while those roles certainly have their place in film, Jojo Rabbit wants a more profound takeaway. By looking at the effects of an evil ideology on a child who would otherwise be a good person, Waititi wonders how we might combat that phenomenon. After all, evil of that magnitude is almost always learned.

There’s nothing wrong with contextualizing horrors through humor so long as it’s done tactfully and with a moral purpose. Jojo Rabbit checks both boxes. When Jojo asks his mom what the people hanging in town did to warrant such a fate, she replies: “What they could.” Some may find that message too simple, but now as ever it’s an important one.

Jojo Rabbit
Director: Taika Waititi
Starring: Roman Griffin Davis, Thomasin McKenzie, Scarlett Johansson
Rated: PG-13
Theater: Area theaters, now playing