Jojo Rabbit review by Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
Jojo Rabbit has come branded in its marketing as a satire on hate. It’s not exactly the hardest feat to pull off. Mocking Adolf Hitler has always been a rather easy sell, as is the mockery of Nazi party and their flawed fascist ideals. While this picture doesn’t quite pack the big bite, merely showcasing the easy jokes to make out the ignorance born from Hitler’s influence, it does well enough staging a whimsical romance and a telling tale of how powerful imagination can be.
It’s the final days of the Nazi party in Germany but the 10-year-old Jojo (Roman Griffin) is under the impression that the party is just getting started. He has been conditioned by the Nazis to not only believe that they shall win but that Hitler is the absolute best. So idolized is Hitler that JoJo has placed a quirky version of the leader in his mind that can deliver witty talks and encouraging pep talks. The magical version of Hitler is played by the director Taika Waititi and is given a chummy appeal to make the monster seem more pleasing to children. Even if he does constantly offer Jojo cigarettes, he represents a certain wonderment of being a man, that everything will be perfect so long as he follows the words of his hero.
But those words don’t work out so well for him. While at a camp for training little Nazis, Jojo has a mishap with a grenade when trying to prove himself. The accident leaves him with a scarred face and weakened legs. He feels as though life is over for him as he’ll no longer be able to serve his country on the front line. Still, his mother (Scarlett Johansson) sticks up for him and keeps his spirits chipper. But then Jojo’s life is thrown a curveball when he discovers there’s a Jew living in his walls. Jojo is frightened and confused by this girl, Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie). Where are her horns? Why does she hide when she is such a demon? And how is it that Jojo is not able to kill this girl? Could it be love? Or hypnotized Jew love?
The film thankfully favors more of this quirky childhood romance than political satire. Roman and Thomasin have a very cute coupling as they try to understand each other amid a tense war that rages right outside their doors. They struggle to keep secrets and come to emotional realizations as empathy slowly forms. It’s fairly routine but still charming as it is.
On the outside, Jojo’s associates are built from familiar tropes and simple Nazi gags. Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell) is the Nazi Youth captain who has grown bitter and drunk but still has a bit of affection for having been wounded himself. He’ll still fall in line to make uninformed statements about Jews and draw himself up a ridiculous outfit to wear into combat. Another Hitler Youth instructor is Fräulein Rahm (Rebel Wilson), a woman who specializes in gossip about the enemy, making up wild stories about curses and hypnotism. Stephen Merchant plays a smiling and intimidating Gestapo who provides some added tension. All of their gags are fairly predictable and treat on relatively safe ground easy enough to mock for bumbling bad guys of ignorant minds.
Jojo Rabbit never quite hits that sweet spot of either political commentary or childhood romance but damned if it doesn’t come close. There always seems to be a certain heart present and a satire that makes itself very clear what it’s all about, especially for a climax of Jojo quite literally telling Hitler to go F off. There’s some darkness to its tale to make the sting of war reasonably deep as well as simple moments of warmth between Johansson and Griffin. It’s an easy comedy with an uneasy twinge of something more not quite being there.