Taika Waititi has followed up his breakout hit Thor: Ragnarok with an audacious, totally unique and, surprised to say, rather funny, take on World War II with his latest, Jojo Rabbit. War movies have been a staple in Hollywood for decades and, at this point, it's hard to break new ground. It's hard to tell a story that feels like it hasn't been told in this massive, important corner of world history. Yet, Waititi has managed to do just that in what serves as another fine entry in his already terrific filmography.
Jojo Rabbit centers on an awkward young German boy named Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis). Jojo doesn't have much in the way of friends and is struggling to find his place in his home country, which is in the middle of a long and terrible war. The boy turns to his imaginary friend, Adolf Hitler (Taika Waititi) for guidance. Jojo is intensely patriotic and just wants to do his part for Germany. Jojo's loyalism tests his relationship with his compassionate mother, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson). But this boy's own beliefs are tested in a bigger way when he encounters a young girl, a Jewish girl, who is living in his attic, upending his entire world and his views on what is right and what is wrong.
War is a heavy subject. There's no two ways about it. But after all these years, it's amazing more people haven't tried to tackle this subject matter in lighter fashion. Yet, Taika Waititi has seized the opportunity. And he was the right man for the job. That's not to say Nazis and the horrible atrocities they committed should be laughed at. Though, through a modern lens, it all does seem rather ridiculous. Waititi plays with that expertly. His signature brand of humor is on full display. That said, there's much more going on here.
Waititi uses the humor and the nature of his story, looking at this world through the eyes of a young boy, to lull the audience into a naive sense of calm about the whole thing. That only serves to shine a big, bright light on the horrors of war. All of that humor leads to incredibly affecting and deeply human moments. It's amazingly balanced. Speaking of this young boy, Roman Griffin Davis has to carry the lion's share of this movie's weight on his young shoulders and he is truly outstanding. Not to be hyperbolic here, but this may go down as an all-timer when it comes to performances from child actors.
The ensemble, in its entirety, is damn near perfect. Sam Rockwell, Rebel Wilson, Stephen Merchant and Scarlett Johannson all shine in their own way. Johannson, particularly, reminds us how wonderful she can be outside of the confines of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Taika Waititi also deserves a lot of credit for sending up Hitler in the way that he does. "Funny Hitler" is not an easy sell, plain and simple. But, both on the page and on the screen, it works. Standing right beside Griffin, though, is Thomasin McKenzie, who delivers a killer, understated performance that is emotionally rich and deeply impactful. War takes its toll on people and it's the people at the heart of this story that make it work.
People far more insightful than I will be discussing this movie for some time, that much is certain. There are themes of humanity, empathy, love, belief and patriotism that are certainly worth examining. For the more casual moviegoer, I'll say this; it is, dare I say nice to see a war movie that isn't so much about the battles. At least not the kind with bullets and guns. People have to go on living during times of war and this movie allows us to explore something we rarely get to see, from a side not often showcased.
Nazis did bad things. But these people were indoctrinated by a tyrannical, unstable man. Outside of being purely entertaining and truly effective on an emotional level, this is a movie that provides a sense of understanding as to how such ugliness can spread, even to those of us who seem the least corruptible. It's big ideas on a relatively small scale, especially when compared to other WWII movies. Jojo Rabbit is bold, amusing, charming and full of heart. Jojo Rabbit arrives in theaters on October 18 from Fox Searchlight.