“Jojo Rabbit” won’t connect with everyone. But if it does, the film by Taika Waititi (“Thor: Ragnarok”) will take you on a rollercoaster ride filled with emotional ups and downs. Laughter turns into heartbreak in the same spirit as the director’s 2016 film “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” which featured a wonderful performance by teenage actor Julian Dennison. Lightning strikes twice for Waititi as another young actor, newcomer Roman Griffin Davis, delivers a superb performance as a 10-year old Nazi wannabe whose imaginary friend is Adolph Hitler. Sounds crazy? It is, but the film works, and Sam Rockwell steals the show.
Following in the footsteps of Charlie Chaplin (“The Great Dictator”), Mel Brooks (“The Producers”) and Ernst Lubitsch (“To Be or Not to Be”), writer-director Taika Waititi crafts a very funny story featuring a parody of the Führer played by the director himself. Obviously, Waititi doesn’t seem like the first choice to play Hitler, but the New Zealander pulls it off in Monty Python fashion in what could have been the perfect vehicle for a younger John Cleese.
The setting is 1940’s Germany as WWII comes to an end. With just weeks left before the Axis powers surrender, 10-year old Jojo Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis) remains convinced that Germany is going to win the war. When we first meet the obsessed youngster, he’s preparing for a weekend retreat at the Hitler Youth Training Camp with second best friend Yorki (Archie Yates). Jojo’s best friend is imaginary and Adolph Hitler. Waititi’s farcical performance as the crazed leader of the Third Reich is so over the top that he resembles a jester but remember this is Hitler in the eyes of a happy-go-lucky child who hasn’t grasped the horrors committed by the lunatic ruler.
Waititi elicits plenty of laughs as he interacts with Jojo spewing off lines like ““Heil me, man!” and “Let’s burn down the house and blame Winston Churchill.” However, Sam Rockwell steals the show as the hilarious one-eyed Captain Klenzendorf, a bumbling Nazi straight out of the sitcom “Hogan’s Heroes.”
Klenzendorf runs the Hitler Youth Camp. In his opening speech to the young scouts, he asks, “Who am I and why am I here, talking to a bunch of little t*tty-grabbers instead of leading my men into battle towards glorious death?” He then informs them that he lost his eye in Operation: Screw-Up and that you need two good eyes to be a meaningful part of the war effort. Camp activities for the young boys include war games, ambush techniques, and blowing stuff up. Rebel Wilson is funny as Frau Rahm, an overzealous assistant to Klenzendorf who informs the girls at the camp that their primary job is to get pregnant and have kids for Germany. She then boasts about having 18 kids for the country.
Based on the 2004 novel “Caging Skies” by Christine Leunen, the film shifts tones unexpectedly leading to some real shocks and heartbreak as the atrocities of war are revealed. Jojo discovers a teenage Jewish girl named Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) living in a secret compartment inside his home. His first reaction is to turn her in to the local Gestapo led by Captain Deertz (Stephen Merchant who resembles the evil Reverend Kane from the “Poltergeist” films) but when Elsa reveals that Jojo’s mother Rosie (a wonderful Scarlett Johansson) is actually a member of the resistance who is responsible for keeping her safe, he realizes that alerting the authorities would mean certain death for his mom.
As Jojo becomes friends with Elsa, imaginary Hitler becomes annoyed, “You two seem to be getting on well!” and once again the film’s tone shifts as tension enters the storyline leading to some courageous moments as Jojo is forced to suddenly grow up. McKenzie who was fantastic in last year’s “Leave No Trace” delivers another fine performance as her character teaches Jojo how to feel empathy.
Music is a vital part of “Jojo Rabbit” as Waititi ingeniously blends German versions of classic songs with their English counterparts. The film opens with The Beatles singing "Komm Gib Mir Deine Hand" (“I Want to Hold Your Hand”) to newsreel footage of Hitler being cheered by the German people, and David Bowie’s “Heroes” transforms into “Helden” during one of my favorite scenes in the film.
The atrocities committed during WWII are seen through the eyes of an innocent child in Taika Waititi’s affecting film which uses drama and comedy to deliver a message that’s just as relevant today as it was in 1945. “Jojo Rabbit” will move you, entertain you, and remind you that life is precious and yes, “We can be heroes just for one day.”