Imaginary dictators and the appeal of the Hitler Youth may not seem like the best attributes with which to craft a meaningful coming-of-age story, yet Taika Waititi uses his odd charms to make it work.
A common approach to writing comedy is to pair it with controversy. In fact, comedy is one of the ways we address controversy. It allows us an alternate view of a touchy subject. It takes a stance to point out the absurdities in how we live our lives. The more taboo the subject, the more the audience is uncomfortable, the more the comedy grabs people’s attention. If we didn’t care about something, it would be easy to laugh at it. Comedy can find a way to reveal truths which may be difficult to discuss, and exposes them, for better or worse.
In film, comedy and controversy have had a long history. Think about Blazing Saddles, The Life of Brian, or South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut. More recently there has been Borat, Superbad, The Hangover, and The Interview. Jojo Rabbit is the latest controversial comedy to grace the big screen. Its premise pairs the coming-of-age of a young boy against the fanatical misconceptions of the Hitler youth. But Jojo Rabbit isn’t just trying to push the boundaries of what comedy can get away with. What sets Jojo Rabbit apart from other controversial comedies is that it is actually also heartwarming and sweet.
Jojo is a ten year-old boy growing up in Nazi Germany during WWII. The war has cost him his father and his sister, but it has not dampened his enthusiasm for the Nazis. Jojo has an ambition to become a member of Hitler’s personal guard, and his obsession is demonstrated by having Hitler as his imaginary friend. He attends a camp which will be his initiation into the Nazi youth, but a freak accident sends him home early. With his mother away during the day, Jojo finds a secret she has been keeping. A young Jewish girl has been hiding in the walls of their house. This discovery causes Jojo to question his beliefs as the war turns against his beloved Germany.
Without the Nazi element, the film’s basic plot would be a typical coming of age story. Jojo is a naive young boy, susceptible to the influences of society. He is boisterous about his dream, confident in his path ahead. But soon finds out that saying what you are going to do, and actually achieving what you want to do are two different things. Through several heart wrenching challenges, he gradually learns about how it is important to do what you think is right, rather than what other people tell you to do.
This transformation in young Jojo comes mostly from his discovery of the Jewish girl, Elsa. Specifically it places him at odds with his own beliefs. As a young boy living in Germany during the war, his enemy isn’t yet the Allied forces. His Nazi teachings tell him that the Jews are what he has to fear. To a young child with a vivid imagination, the Jews are seen as some sort of nightmarish monster. Elsa teases him bitterly, playing into his nonsensical beliefs. Much of the film’s comedy comes from the absurdity of Jojo (and the Nazi’s) fear of the Jews.
But the film’s conflict between the Jews and Nazis also serves as a message for modern times too. Through this comedy, writer/director/producer Taika Waititi shows us how outrageous we all act when facing someone who we have been taught is different from us. In these times of deep political divides, we often see our friends and neighbors as the enemy. When Elsa first appears, Jojo sees her in terms of his Nazi teachings. She is vile and dangerous. But gradually, as he experiences several personal challenges which cause him to question his beliefs, he begins to realize the errors in his ways. Over time, he comes to do something he would never have thought possible - he begins to care for Elsa.
What’s most impressive about Jojo is that he manages to do all this by himself. The story has a message about following your heart, not just believing in something blindly. Jojo’s transformation doesn’t come from listening to the adults around him, or the propaganda he has to plaster all over the city walls. His mother is there to love him and encourage him, but he figures out difficult bits on his own. He even pushes aside the part of himself which he believed in the most. If only we all had the fortitude to ignore the little Hitlers living in our minds.
That interaction between Jojo and his imaginary Hitler is what brings the film much of its humor. The script is packed full of witty, and (I never thought I would say this about a film with Nazis) cute one-liners. They often evolve into ridiculous sight gags which manage to balance out some of the film’s more grim moments. In fact, despite everything that is going on, the film has an underlying positive attitude which goes well with the messages it is conveying. Such an optimistic tone does rob the film of a few suspenseful set-ups, and perhaps waters down the severity of the situation. But Waititi’s films have always had this optimistic tone, even in the most dire of circumstances. His ability to extract more sweetness than bitterness out of a film which discusses the Holocost should be commended.
Waititi is equally adept behind the camera as he is in front of it. His version of Hitler is simply hilarious. He manages to make one of the most hated figures in history funny, and not just in a way we’ve seen before like a parody who is a bumbling buffoon. Waititi’s imaginary Hitler speaks and thinks as if he were created in the mind of a child. It is his idol, the ideal image he wants to live up to - an image which is far from reality. Behind the camera, Waititi keeps the story moving at a consistent pace - the comedy and the tragedy both come quickly, almost unexpectedly. This keeps the audience on the edge of their seat. It also helps to make up for some of the story’s more predictable occurrences.
For a film centered around two young characters, the actors portraying them bring a remarkable consistency and depth to their roles. Roman Griffith Davis plays Jojo, and his interactions with his invisible friend Hitler are the highlight of the film. His ability to convey his confusion and angst for the condition of the world around him is also what drives the film. Opposite him, Thomasin McKenzie as Elsa brings strength to the role of this young girl who is all alone in this harsh reality. The film’s humor also comes from its supporting characters. Sam Rockwell and Rebel Wilson both bring a lot of fun to the film, along with others.
And so if it sounds like Jojo Rabbit is a film which is more fun than controversial, that is because it is true. The merits of framing a coming of age story in one of the darkest times of history may be debatable, but the end result is a film which uses comedy to teach us a timeless lesson. It may be the kind of story you’ve seen in film countless times before, but the placement of that story in the middle of dire straights and still being able to come up with something inspirational says a lot about the merits of the film.
What's Bad: The central story doesn't feel all that original, sometimes predictable, some plot lines are unresolved, still controversial (not necessarily in a good way).