If The Shape of Water was Guillermo del Toro’s Beauty and the Beast, then Jojo Rabbit is Taika Waititi’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
In a less hyperbolic era, merely within the world of online entertainment media, Fox Searchlight’s Jojo Rabbit would barely merit anything resembling controversy. It is a simple story, one told with confidence and clear-eyed discipline, offering an of-the-moment look at the power of propaganda and self-empowering narratives at the expense of personal morality and/or the greater good. Based on Christine Leunens’ novel Caging Skies, it concerns a young boy living in Europe in the waning days of World War II who discovers that his mother is hiding a young Jewish girl in the attic. Oh, and, in a deviation from the book, this dedicated Hitler Youth wanabee’s best friend is an imaginary personification of Adolf Hitler himself.
That odd little detail allows the film to offer trailer-friendly (and clickbait-driving) moments of a comically over-the-top Hitler. In this case, he’s played by writer/director Taika Waititi as a cross between the Cat in the Hat and Dick Shawn’s turn as Hitler in the original The Producers. It’s that Mel Brooks classic that comes to mind in terms of how it approaches its key supporting character. Unlike other “very serious” examinations of evil (like Edward Norton’s reformed neo-Nazi in Tony Kaye’s American History X), no one is going to misconstrue this Hitler as a secretly cool dude. Moreover, Waititi’s foppish and farcical performance is meant to belittle, used in moderation and serves purposes beyond merely getting cheap laughs.
This imaginary Hitler is introduced as a “You can do it!” cheerleader for young Jojo Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis) as he tries and fails to make the cut as a battle-ready member of the Hitler Youth. The opening scenes have an banality and bemusement to them, as Sam Rockwell (as a faithful but disillusioned Nazi officer) and Rebel Wilson (as an enthusiastic instructor) enliven the expository sections. But the core story, especially when it kicks into gear, is one of a loving mother (Scarlett Johansson, as good here as she’s ever been) trying to maintain her moral compass in a time of institutional immorality while watching in despair as her sweet, goodhearted son becomes a faithful “good soldier.”
Things get complicated when Jojo discovers that his mother Rosie has given aid and shelter to a teen girl hiding from the Nazis. The relationship between the young-n-faithful Nazi and the traumatized but resilient young girl (Elsa Korr, exquisitely played by Leave No Trace breakout Thomasin McKenzie) is as nuanced and shaded as you’d hope. Yes, he takes an understandable liking to her, and she tries to maintain a certain authority and dignity even as her life is in this young man’s hands. He eventually uses her as a kind of research subject for learning more about the dreaded Jew, while of course realizing that we aren’t the supernatural beings of monstrous evil that he’s been told.
The conundrum resembles The Hunchback of Notre Dame (especially the movie versions). A sheltered young boy meets and bonds with a representative of the inhuman enemy only to realize that his surrogate father/paternal role model is the real monster. The early moments presenting Hitler as a (nearly) harmless figure of fun has a payoff, both implicitly (Elsa calls out Jojo only being a Nazi for the friendship and the cool uniform) and explicitly (slight spoilers, but the imaginary friend eventually shows his imaginary fangs). Moreover, the picture gives us at least a couple of scenes between Elsa and Rosie, where both parties express despair at their shared fate trying to be decent people in an indecent time.
None of this reinvents the wheel, and the whole notion of it being an “anti-hate satire” is a marketing term because it sounds better than “a comedy set in Nazi-occupied Europe about a young Hitler Youth kid who befriends a Jewish girl in hiding.” As far as its presentation of the Nazis, the film makes a clear distinction between good people doing bad things and bad people doing good things. Both folks are technically bad, which shouldn’t be a challenging concept. One of the many casualties of the “Trump era” is the idea that nuanced characters and complex writing when dealing with “bad guys” is something not to aspire but a form of aid and comfort to the enemy.
I say this because the film does offer a moment or two of nuanced humanity for Sam Rockwell’s Nazi captain, which has been taken in some circles as a kind of “good people on both sides” declaration from an above-the-fray observer. It’s a short-sighted criticism, even for our depiction = endorsement era, one that frustrates because I can’t dispute it without getting into third act narrative beats. Nonetheless, this is a story where super-duper happy endings are in short supply. If anything, the movie outwardly states that a good person can be tarred by bad actions far easier than a bad person can be redeemed by a moment of grace or a halfhearted choice to be modestly decent.
Come what may, Jojo Rabbit is a terrific character comedy, one that takes place in a time of high drama and doesn’t shy away from the inevitable consequences of the time in which it is set. The core trio, Davis, McKenzie and Johansson, are terrific, and Waititi firmly places his story within his “corrupt systems must be burned to the ground” themes from Thor: Ragnarok. Likely to be lost amid the “Is it Oscar-worthy?” or “Is it woke enough?” online chatter is the fact that, come what may, Jojo Rabbit is a very good movie. It’s also exactly the kind of thing we would want to continue to exist as Fox becomes part of the Disney empire.