Starring Roman Griffin Davis, Scarlett Johansson, Thomasin McKenzie, Taika Waititi, Sam Rockwell, Rebel Wilson, Stephen Merchant
Austin Family Critical Rating: ***** of *****
Austin Family Family-Friendly Rating: *** ½ of *****
Writer, director and actor Taika Waititi has blazed a trail of original filmmaking over the last ten years, yielding such idiosyncratic and hilarious films as Hunter for the Wilderpeople (2016) and What We Do in the Shadows (2014). Shortly after the success of those films, Marvel hired him to infuse some liveliness into Thor: Ragnarok two years ago. With Jojo Rabbit, Waititi is thankfully now back to making his own unique creations – only this time, he now has the clout to make his bold work on a much larger scale (and with more prominent actors than ever before).
Jojo Rabbit focuses on a young boy, Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis), growing up in Nazi Germany. Jojo’s peers frequently pick on him, and he’s left alone much of the time with his imaginary friend, Adolf. Yes, it’s that Adolf – but as conceptualized by a twelve year-old boy and played by Waititi, who is Jewish.
The premise is so fascinatingly bizarre that the film immediately demands your attention, and luckily, Waititi has a lot on his mind here. By telling the story from the perspective of a child, the filmmaker illustrates how a young person can grow up in a hateful environment and simply not know anything beyond his limited worldview. It’s a useful tool for empathy – nobody thinks they’re growing up in a place like Nazi Germany if that’s all they’ve ever known. The film goes even deeper when Jojo’s mother, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson), reveals she’s hiding a young Jewish girl (Thomasin McKenzie, so extraordinary in last year’s Leave No Trace) in their house – which immediately challenges Jojo’s beliefs.
A film like Jojo Rabbit takes a very skilled director to pull off tonally, and Waititi masterfully finds a balance between uneasy comedy and deeply felt human drama. There’s nothing funny about Nazism, but there is significant power in watching a child’s vision of his hero crumble before his eyes, giving way to a deeper and more compassionate understanding of the world.
Jojo Rabbit is an ambitious, funny and ultimately very moving film, with excellent performances from Johansson, McKenzie, Davis, Waititi and the great Sam Rockwell (as a bumbling, ineffective Nazi).
The film is rated PG-13 primarily for its depiction of Nazi Germany. It does not show the horrors and atrocities of the time in a terribly graphic manner, but the thematic material is certainly heavy. I would recommend the film for those twelve and above.
Reviewed by Jack Kyser. Jack Kyser is a graduate of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. He currently works as a web video editor at Comedy Central for The Daily Show, and writes and directs independent films, which have screened at numerous film festivals nationwide. He has written a film column for Austin Family since 2004.