Zoë Rose Bryant’s review published on Letterboxd:
“Let everything happen to you.
Beauty and terror.
Just keep going.
No feeling is final.”
- Rainer Maria Rilke
Jojo Rabbit is a jovial and jubilant anti-hate screed that digs deep to explore how we use our hearts to survive and thrive under the most harrowing of experiences, told with tonal precision by writer-director Taika Waititi and imbued with humanity by its cast headlined by Roman Griffin Davis, Thomasin McKenzie, and the superb Scarlett Johansson.
When Jojo Rabbit was first announced, many had (very understandable) concerns. Would a quirky New Zealand comedian like Waititi be able to properly balance the grave horrors of World War II and the Holocaust with his signature satiric stylings? Thankfully, I’m immensely happy to report that, for the most part, Waititi demonstrates remarkable restraint when it comes to infusing these tragic terrors with his off-kilter Kiwi humor. Jojo Rabbit truly thrives when it uses comedy as a weapon against the insanely off-base ideologies of the Nazis (particularly when it comes to Jojo’s “interviews” with Elsa as he tries to better understand the “Jew enemy”) but Waititi’s script still manages to pull back when the situation demands, most notably in the third act. While the film is a bit of a light and loose “odd couple” act between Davis and McKenzie for the first two thirds, we (and Jojo) are later starkly reminded of the tragedy of these times beginning with one heart-stopping shot that has been seared into my brain. From this point forward, Jojo is faced with the true consequences and calamities of war and hate. Though the climax does arrive rather abruptly and feels jarring at first, its lingering impact succeeds at illustrating how quickly tides can change and how death and destruction care little for one’s age.
As the title character, Roman Griffin Davis has quite the challenge when it comes to anchoring this insanity and convincing audiences to sympathize with his (initially) quite detestable character. Miraculously, Davis’s wide-eyed innocence and endlessly endearing persona work wonders at steering Jojo away from the descriptor of “monstrous” and placing him more firmly in the realm of “misguided”. Without excusing his painfully prejudiced views, it’s clear from the get-go that Jojo is a woefully confused child, caught between his inner benevolence and his desire to gain admiration from (what he sees as) the ”neat” Nazis. As he continues to communicate with Elsa, we see the ways that blind fanaticism and groupthink have clouded his brain, and slowly but surely, his misplaced mindset begins to erode, reversing his indoctrination into enmity. It’s a tremendously uplifting character arc, made all the more effective thanks to Thomasin McKenzie’s relentlessly warm-hearted portrayal of Elsa, the “Jew that lives upstairs”. Though her pleasant appearance may deceive you, Elsa is no simple-minded saint, and just as Jojo jeers at her, she proves more than capable of dishing it right back to him, serving as a mighty fine foil to his foul faith in Nazism.
Though slightly underutilized, Jojo Rabbit’s adult supporting cast is just as spectacular, with Scarlett Johansson serving as a major standout in her supporting turn as Jojo’s mother Rosie. As a strong-willed woman left at home with a husband at a war and a son slowly slipping under the Nazis’s spell, Rosie does her best to grit her teeth and make the most of what she has, constantly preaching about the virtues of hope and optimism in a time where such beliefs are in short supply. Johansson is really quite ravishing here, never coming across as in-genuine in monologues that could have seemed sappy or overly sentimental in lesser hands (such as her laments about Germany’s lack of love to Jojo or her one-on-one conversations with Elsa about her loss of a proper adolescence). Taika Waititi is unsurprisingly terrific as Jojo’s idiosyncratic imaginary representation of Adolf Hitler, but if I had one critique, it would be that he disappears a tad too much in the middle half of the film; a more consistent presence would’ve been benefitted the peculiar proceedings and added even more energy to the second act. Sam Rockwell is splendid in smaller doses (though he gets a rather devastating final scene), while Rebel Wilson, Stephen Merchant, and newcomer Archie Yates all expertly capitalize on their comedic capabilities.
Waititi’s direction proves to be just as distinguished as his writing, as he truly crafts a few instantly iconic sequences, such as Elsa’s horror-tinged emergence from her hideout or a brutal and beguiling battle that Jojo finds himself hopelessly caught up in during the climax. Likewise, Mayes C. Rubeo’s costuming and Ra Vincent’s production design work to bring the environment of 1940s Germany to life while embellishing it with Waititi’s unique flair.
When viewed in its full duration, it’s clear that Jojo Rabbit truly doesn’t deserve the mind-boggling controversy that has plagued it as of late. Though the film tackles tricky thematic material, it treads lightly, and Waititi manages to handily find the heart in such horror. Thanks to pleasurable performances and witty, whimsical writing, Jojo Rabbit manages to send audiences out on a high, infusing them with hope in these hateful times and reminding them to “never forget to dance.”