Taika Waititi's Jojo Rabbit is out this Friday, October 18. Are you looking forward to the topical take on one youth's indoctrination into Nazi fanaticism? (Trust us--it's funnier than it sounds.) In the meantime, check out our chat with Waititi and actor Stephen Merchant about tackling this controversial subject matter.
Think of a movie about how a cruel and unforgiving society can turn even the most good-hearted individual into a hateful and extremist person with dangerous ideals, a movie that hits too close to home in 2019. No, not Joker--we're talking about the latest film from Thor: Ragnarok director Taika Waititi. It's Jojo Rabbit, this generation's definitive political satire starring an imaginary Hitler.
Meet Jojo Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis), a young German kid toward the end of WWII. Germany is losing and morale is low, but this little Nazi refuses to accept reality. In a hilarious opening credits sequence set to the German version of the Beatles' "I Wanna Hold Your Hand," we see Jojo jumping with glee, running through his town saying "Heil Hitler" to everyone he sees as he makes his way toward Nazi summer camp. Jojo is a Nazi superfan, with posters of Adolf Hitler decorating his bedroom like he was a rockstar, something Waititi plays with as the credits sequence is cut with actual footage of German citizens losing their minds and screaming in joy at the sight of Hitler in a weird reflection of Beatlemania.
Oh, and Jojo--like many kids--has an imaginary friend, only his is a way funnier and kinda likeable version of the Führer played by Waititi himself, who gives Jojo pep-talks, but still remains a psychotic dictator.
The first act of the movie deals with Jojo going to Hitler Youth camp, where he will learn valuable and fun lessons like how to throw grenades, stab people, and shoot guns. Waititi knows this is a very difficult movie to pull off, but he manages to make the whole thing absolutely hilarious, and also kind of adorable, through its irreverence and absurdity. Sure, the instructors, who include a scene-stealing Rebel Wilson playing a laid back but very evil administrator, and Sam Rockwell as yet another racist with power who may be hiding a good person somewhere inside, are still Nazi sadists who laugh at the millions dying in the war. But the kids are played as adorable and innocent fools who joke about killing people because it's what their indoctrinated ideology tells them to do. They don't know any better.
Mihai Malaimare Jr.'s symmetrical cinematography and Michael Giacchino's gleeful score work together to establish a Wes Anderson-esque atmosphere of childlike wonder that brings to mind The Grand Budapest Hotel. Though he doesn't shy away from showing the horrors of the war, Waititi isn't interested in exploring the Holocaust or any actual WWII battles. For the most part, the Nazis in the movie are simply buffoons. This movie doesn't feel the need to explain that Nazis are bad; we know that already. Instead, it shows the inherent stupidity of violent and radical ideologies, and how they can bring out the worst in people, and even corrupt the good at heart.
That's why, when Jojo discovers that his mom (Scarlett Johansson) is hiding a young Jewish girl named Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) in his attic, his little swastika-loving world gets turned upside down. At first, he's understandably terrified--what if she has psychic powers and wants to drink his blood like a vampire, as imaginary Hitler suggests? The problems arise when Jojo begins to realize he likes Elsa, much to Hitler's dismay. Herein lies the core of Jojo Rabbit, as its titular character slowly starts to realize that his worship of Nazi ideology may have been misplaced. Waititi is not interested in showing the appeal of hate and violence or how easily it spreads, but how silly and small it is compared to love and understanding. This is a movie not about fighting what we hate, but about saving what we love.
Waititi keeps proving he knows how to find the best young actors in the business, with Roman Griffin Davis joining Julian Dennison (Deadpool 2, Hunt for the Wilderpeople) and James Rolleston (Boy, The Breaker Upperers) as great, untested talent making big impressions. Davis perfectly shows the character's innocence, cheerfulness, and pain. He and Waititi play off each other wonderfully, creating some of the best scenes in the movie--especially once Jojo starts to question whether Hitler is actually a nice person. Johansson gives one of the best performances of her career, always carrying a smile that hides a deep and undeniable sadness caused by a world in ruins.
McKenzie was already one of the big standouts last year thanks to Debra Granik's drama Leave No Trace, and her performance as Elsa shows why you should be paying attention to her career. Though Jojo Rabbit relies on bringing 2019 humor to '40s politics for its comedy, McKenzie's Elsa doesn't feel like a girl from 2019 living in the '40s. Elsa is rightly scared out of her mind at the prospect of the swastika-loving boy telling on her, but she is not above calling Jojo out for his misguided beliefs or mocking his foolish investigation into the evil powers Jewish people supposedly have.
Jojo Rabbit could have easily been a disaster, but Taika Waititi's ability to mix satire with emotion makes it all work. In a time when hate is everywhere and violent ideologies are spreading like wildfire, Jojo Rabbit shows that opening our hearts to love and hope can shine a light on even the darkest moments.