Jojo Rabbit

Jojo Rabbit ★★★★

During the final days of Nazi Germany, Jojo Betzler, a lonely 10 year-old boy played by Roman Griffin Davis, proudly wears his Hitler Youth uniform and swears loyalty to the regime while indulging in an imaginary friendship with a goofy and bumbling incarnation of Adolf Hitler, who offers encouragement to him after everyday humiliations and setbacks. Jojo's fanciful ideals and jingoistic notions are thrown into a tailspin, however, when he discovers that his mother, played by Scarlett Johansson, is secretly sheltering a young Jewish girl in a hidden attic compartment.

The satirical 2019 dark comedy, Jojo Rabbit, which is directed with a kinetic visual energy by Taika Waititi (Thor: Ragnarok), is a controversial endeavor that thankfully balances its potentially inappropriate tonal aspects with heartbreakingly somber narrative turns. Davis, in the title role, maintains a commanding screen presence by conveying multilayered emotions with his eyes. Johansson may not handle her character's accents in a flawless way, but she is buoyantly charismatic as a woman who is juggling multiple responsibilities. Thomasin McKenzie, who delivered a powerhouse performance in the 2018 drama, Leave No Trace, shines once again here as the desperate houseguest. Sam Rockwell and Rebel Wilson are standouts in their roles as our young protagonist's Hitler Youth training instructors. Finally, Waititi himself combines physical humor with convincing emotional heft as Jojo's imaginary Hitler who functions as a substitute of sorts for the boy's missing father.

Like many others, I have always inwardly questioned the use of Holocaust themes as casual pop culture entertainment in cinema. Classic comedies, like Charles Chaplin's The Great Dictator (1940) and Ernst Lubitsch's To Be or Not to Be (1942), matinee mayhem blockbusters like Steven Spielberg's Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), fictional pulp titles like Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds (2009), and even comic book adaptation twists designed for emotional effect, like Magneto's backstory in the X-Men films, generally have a method to their madness that justifies the storylines, but the aftertaste of real-life tragedy still makes its mark for those who are well read on their history. Like the above predecessors, Jojo Rabbit is best suited for literate viewers who possess critical thinking skills and who have enough knowledge of actual World War II events to understand the intentions of the filmmakers who reference them. In other words, I would not necessarily recommend showing this new film to a child who has not yet developed a comprehension of that tragic time in humanity's past. In this movie's defense, however, I believe that the ability to laugh in the face of pure evil is often its own reward.

This movie falters a few times, especially during its final 15 minutes, and the ultimate payoff merely grazes the brain, but one particular scene, involving a pair of shoes, is the most abruptly jolting visual that I have experienced in recent memory. Jojo is forced to grow up too fast, but there is an undeniable joy to be found in knowing that he does, indeed, find his way to maturation with his conscience in the right place.

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