Jojo Rabbit is hilarious. It should come as no surprise that Taika Waititi, the director who saved the Thor franchise with the heavily stylized Thor: Ragnarok and helmed the vampire mockumentary gem What We Do In The Shadows, would make a coming-of-age comedy set in Nazi Germany. Despite its absurd premise, Jojo Rabbit has been nominated for Best Picture and five other awards at the 2020 Oscars. Even if Jojo Rabbit ends up empty handed after the award show, it deserves to be remembered as one of the best films of the year.
Enjoying Jojo Rabbit requires suspension of disbelief. Approaching this movie as strictly a coming-of-age film, a genre that often prioritizes realism, may cause the viewer to feel that Jojo Rabbit is too over the top. Jojo, the ten-year-old boy and central character of the story, has an imaginary best friend who happens to be Adolf Hitler. The character of Hitler, played by Waititi himself, has the spirit of a ten-year-old and is often used as comic relief. The story is told from a ten-year-old’s perspective, giving childlike innocence to the backdrop of WWII and allowing the movie to remain colorful and upbeat throughout.
Jojo’s not the most popular kid. He only has one friend his age. Though he tries to be the best Hitler Youth he can be, this element of his identity is tested when he discovers a young Jewish girl, Elsa, living in a hidden room behind the walls of the home he and his mother live in. Instead of turning her in to the police, Jojo decides “study” Elsa for a book he wants to write about Jews.
Elsa and Jojo’s relationship is central to the movie’s heart. Forcing two characters who seem diametrically opposed together is not a new territory for film. In fact, this story arc is shared with 2019’s Best Picture winner, Green Book. Though making opposed characters connect emotionally (and make this connection appear genuine to audiences) seems impossible, Jojo Rabbit’s youthful lens makes this arc far more believable. Through this perspective, the movie explores the power of propaganda and how indoctrination can be particularly powerful on youths.
The only obvious fault with Jojo Rabbit is its occasional pacing issues. The movie begins with Jojo attending a Hitler Youth training camp. When this section of the movie ends, it isn’t quite clear where the story is going. This creates a small lull in action, but the vibrant colors and constant subtle – and sometimes not so subtle – comedy of the film recaptures the viewers’ attention, pushing the movie through this slow patch.
The film’s youthful perspective also makes its levity possible. Jojo isn’t truly able to process the atrocities going on in WWII. At its core, Jojo Rabbit isn’t a war movie; It’s a coming-of-age movie about a boy falling in love and beginning to understand the world around him. Jojo Rabbit’s unique perspective paired with its setting give it a sense of profundity that many films can’t achieve.
Jojo Rabbit’s crowning achievement is the way it weaves tragedy into the characters’ lighthearted experiences. Taking place in WWII gives the plot intense, drastic stakes. Many scenes hold more weight simply because the viewer is aware of the subtext of the situation while Jojo is not. For example, viewers know that if Elsa is discovered by the Nazis she will be taken away and possibly be killed. Jojo’s ignorance of these stakes allows the movie audiences to have sympathy for Jojo and accept that his imaginary best friend is literally Hitler. Other stakes are more explicitly mentioned, such as many characters’ fear that the war will never end.
Jojo Rabbit says a lot while telling the audience very little. It is a coming-of-age film in some traditional ways: A boy discovers love and wants to find his place in the world. But the underlying, and arguably more important, story involves Jojo discovering that his imaginary best friend is not exactly all he’d imagined him to be.
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