The tail end of 2019 has brought us two of the decade’s most controversial films. With Joker, audiences remain divided over whether director Todd Phillips glorified violence or shined a much-needed light on the subject. Phillips, whose previous credits include The Hangover trilogy, claims that he took a break from comedy because “woke culture” has made the genre increasingly difficult to tackle. In response to Phillips’ comments, director Taika Waititi wrote on twitter, “Lol he funny.” Waititi’s latest film, Jojo Rabbit, is the kind of movie that Phillips and most other comedy directors would be hesitant to make in today’s political climate: a Nazi satire about a Hitler Youth who has the Führer as an imaginary friend.
A setup like this practically invites a polarizing response from viewers. What’s fascinating about Jojo Rabbit is that it never feels like Waititi is trying to get a rise out of his audience. On the contrary, the film more often than not seems blissfully unaware that it’s poking fun at one of the bleakest chapters in human history. That’s not to say it’s irresponsible or insensitive, though. Jojo Rabbit has a childlike innocence to it, almost akin to a school play. Sometimes great insight can be found in the eyes of a child and the same can be said about a comedy such as this. Even at its most shocking, Jojo Rabbit is a meaningful coming-of-age story that encourages us all to reevaluate the definition of prejudice.
Newcomer Roman Griffin Davis shines as Jojo Betzler, a young boy growing up in Nazi Germany. Although he’s eager to earn his swastika, Jojo can’t even bring himself to wring a rabbit’s neck, hence where his nickname comes from. Jojo’s only two friends are a roly-poly Hitler Youth named Yorki (Archie Yates) and an over-the-top version of Hitler he daydreams about, played by Waititi in an uproarious performance. The wannabe Nazi develops another unlikely friendship upon learning that his mother (Scarlett Johansson) has been harboring a Jewish girl named Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) in their house. Jojo’s first instinct is to break out his knife, but he eventually takes a shine to the girl he’s been trained to hate. Likewise, Elsa comes to view Jojo as a little brother, although Jojo wishes they could be more.
The scenes between Jojo and Waititi’s flamboyant Hitler are hilarious enough to be ripped from Mel Brooks’ The Producers or Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be. Sam Rockwell and Rebel Wilson are equally funny as two Hitler Youth camp instructors who would fit in well with the cast of Hogan’s Heroes. In the midst of all the clever Jew and Nazi one-liners, Waititi tells a sincere story about friendship and how one’s environment can shape dangerous mindsets. In Life is Beautiful, Roberto Benigni played a father who cooks up a fantasy to distract his son from the harsh reality of the Holocaust. In Jojo Rabbit, the father is cut out of the equation, requiring our young protagonist to create his own fantasy.
This fantastical approach is largely why Jojo Rabbit works. These people don’t exist in the real world, but rather the quirky reality Wes Anderson’s characters tend to inhabit. As the comforting walls of fantasy begin to crumble, though, the consequences of Nazi Evil begin to shine through. Slowly but surely, Jojo realizes that the Führer isn’t wearing any clothes and Nazi Germany is the exact opposite of the promised land. While much of the film is played for laughs, Waititi does force us to contemplate what we’d do in Jojo’s shoes. Would we choose to remain oblivious or betray everything we’ve been brought up to believe? It’s a bold question from a film that’s wise and naïve in all the right ways.