‘Jojo Rabbit’ wins and loses
Ryan Israel | Monday, November 25, 2019
When I was 10 years old, I was obsessed with Star Wars. I’d seen all the movies, religiously watched the animated series and even read a couple of spin-off books. I had all the merch, more than one toy lightsaber and for Halloween I went as a stormtrooper. I dreamed of being Obi-Wan Kenobi, obviously the best character, and I wasn’t the only one, or at least that’s what I tell myself. A lot of kids in my generation had a Star Wars phase, a period marked by fanaticism for the epic space saga.
Johannes Betzler, the 10-year-old main character of the new film “Jojo Rabbit,” is supposed to be your average boy, except Jojo is growing up in WWII-era Germany. His fascination is not with Star Wars, but rather with Adolf Hitler, swastikas and the Nazi party. Despite his young age, he is eager to fight on the front lines, like what he is told his father is doing; he dreams of the day he can be a member of the Fuhrer’s private guard, and he’s gone so far as creating an imaginary-friend Hitler, who gives him advice in the most trying times. As his mother says, Jojo is kind of a fanatic.
Taika Waititi, the director and writer behind “Jojo Rabbit,” throws Jojo’s Nazi fanaticism right in your face at the beginning of the film. You can’t ignore the fact that Jojo is a proud antisemite and a loyal, faithful follower of Hitler. But if you manage to get through the first 15 or so minutes, you get to watch Waititi’s efforts to make you care for this little boy.
Part of falling in love with Jojo is realizing that he is just a kid. At a stage when most kids of my generation were falling in love with Star Wars, he lived in a country that was under the influence of the most manipulative and diabolical leader of all time who was leading a massive propaganda campaign to get to the hearts and minds of every German citizen. Jojo was told his father, his biggest role model, had gone to the front lines to sacrifice his life for his country. The film asks us to contemplate the larger forces at play that have influenced this child.
But, of course, there’s more to it. Roman Griffin Davis does a phenomenal job in his debut role as Jojo. The 11-year-old captures the giddy energy, soft innocence and fierce loyalty of a young person. The dialogue makes the character as well; Waititi’s words, when delivered by Davis, gives Jojo a quick-wit and an endearing personality. The narrative puts Jojo’s fanaticism to the test as he learns, in a painful way, that the world isn’t as simple as he thought, and everything he believed in comes crashing down. The cinematography, mise-en-scène and all that other stuff is great, too.
Any story tied to the Holocaust — one of the greatest atrocities of all time — from the perspective of a Nazi — no matter how young — has a insurmountable hill to climb. It asks you to consider a mindset that is morally detestable and abhorrent. As such, “Jojo Rabbit,” for better or for worse, can’t get over that hill. The presence of a physical, humanized and humorous depiction of Adolf Hitler, played by Waitit himself, and a few of the anti-Semetic jokes take the film the wrong way. As tragic as the story is for Jojo, it doesn’t go beyond him.
It’s been called a “love-it-or-hate-it” movie, but I’ll call “Jojo Rabbit” a “have-mixed-feelings-about-it” movie. Although, you should probably watch it yourself. Buy a ticket, go to a movie theater, support filmmakers, have a discussion about what the film means to you. Maybe you’ll love it, or maybe you’ll hate it.
Movie: “Jojo Rabbit”
Director: Taika Waititi
Starring: Roman Griffin Davis, Thomasin McKenzie, Scarlett Johansson
If You Like: “Moonrise Kingdom,” “Thor: Ragnarok”
Shamrocks: 3.5 out of 5