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Fantastic Fest 2019 Review: 'Jojo Rabbit'

Chris is a Houston Film Critics Society Member and a contributor at Bounding Into Comics, God Hates Geeks, and Slickster Magazine.

The official cast theatrical poster for, "Jojo Rabbit."

The official cast theatrical poster for, "Jojo Rabbit."

Jews Smell Like Brussel Sprouts

Roman Griffin Davis stars as Jojo Betzler in Taika Waititi’s black comedy Jojo Rabbit. Along with his second best friend Yorki (Archie Yates), Jojo is a part of a Nazi training camp for young boys and girls to become the men and women suited to be Hitler's supporting soldiers. Meanwhile, Jojo’s mom Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) is secretly hiding a young Jewish girl named Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) within the walls of their home. Jojo, who is incredibly adamant about Hitler becoming his first best friend, has Hitler as an imaginary friend (portrayed by Taika Waititi) who shows up whenever Jojo seems to need a pep talk.

Based on the 2008 novel Caging Skies by Christine Leunens, Jojo Rabbit is a bonkers twist on one of the most devastating wars and tyrannical madmen in history. On the surface, the film is about a child attempting to become a Nazi because he views HItler as this great leader. He has to attempt to learn to kill, hate Jews, and essentially ignore all of his morals in order to just fit in with an army who believes they are the superior race. The intriguing aspect is that Waititi injects this unexpected tenderness and has concocted a film that has a heartbeat that is entirely too human and too genuine for any sort of project involving the likes of Adolf Hitler.

Thomasin McKenzie, Roman Griffin Davis, and Taika Waititi in, "Jojo Rabbit."

Thomasin McKenzie, Roman Griffin Davis, and Taika Waititi in, "Jojo Rabbit."

The Jojo/Hitler dynamic is an incredibly playful one. Hitler only seems to show up when something doesn’t go according to plan for Jojo or he needs some words of encouragement when times get tough. Hitler is a figment of Jojo’s imagination and is completely reactionary to Jojo’s world. If Jojo gets scared, Hitler shows up to remind him why he’s risking his own self comfort. While Waititi is funny and awkwardly charming as Hitler, which is an odd thing to say in itself, don’t overlook Archie Yates. Roman Griffin Davis encapsulates this innocence that even Elsa describes as something along the lines of a ten year old playing dress up with his friends in order to join a club. But Yates often plays off of Davis humorously and amusingly and will likely be forgotten about by some by the time they leave the theater.

Seemingly tapping into his inspiration for Gentlemen Broncos, Sam Rockwell portrays Captain Klenzendorf - a former war veteran who lost an eye and is now forced to teach children how to be soldiers. He has this strange tension on the verge of romance thing going on with his right hand man Finkel (Alfie Allen) and has extravagant taste with intricate ideas for his new uniform. Rockwell and Allen are hilarious and outshine Rebel Wilson’s Fräulein Rahm who never seems to serve much purpose before or after her line about, “having 18 kids for Germany.”

The sweet nature of Jojo Rabbit is expanded upon with the mother/son relationship between Rosie and Jojo. They have completely different viewpoints of a world on the verge of total annihilation where Jojo is slowly nudged into his mother’s mindset. It’s not so much a brainwashing as it is Jojo coming to terms with how he feels about people. Jojo Rabbit defines who we all are on the inside and simply explores the path anyone with an everyday beating heart (not rooted by a tiny mustache) would travel down over the course of their youth.

It’s kind of extraordinary that Jojo Rabbit has been released during a time when Fox Searchlight Pictures is owned by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures where a guy directing two of the biggest Thor movies did a side project where he plays Hitler and never had to attempt to keep that a secret. Waititi puts Jojo Betzler through the ringer by blowing him up repeatedly and throwing him down a flight of stairs all while being bullied and pushed around the entire time. But dammit if Jojo Rabbit isn’t one of the most heartfelt and imaginative fairy tales of the year.

Sam Rockwell, Scarlett Johansson, and Roman Griffin Davis in, "Jojo Rabbit."

Sam Rockwell, Scarlett Johansson, and Roman Griffin Davis in, "Jojo Rabbit."

This is a film where storytelling, embellishing and elongating false reputations, and glorifying urban myths is the driving force of entertainment. Underneath its layers of SS uniforms, dangerous pistols, and knives you should never leave home without, Jojo Rabbit is a touching film about human compassion with an intimacy that is absolutely unparalleled. Categorized somewhere between Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom and an imaginative concept that is an obvious homage to Calvin and Hobbes, love feels like it’s the only thing spreading across the world more powerful than war and Jojo Rabbit is more than happy to hype you up and throw you in love’s way without remorse.

Thomasin McKenzie and Roman Griffin Davis as Elsa and Jojo in, "Jojo Rabbit."

Thomasin McKenzie and Roman Griffin Davis as Elsa and Jojo in, "Jojo Rabbit."

© 2019 Chris Sawin

Comments

Noel Penaflor from California on October 08, 2019:

At worst, I thought this looked like a version of Wes Anderson twee. I'll see this regardless, but I'm glad it's getting such positive word of mouth. Excellent review.