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'Jojo Rabbit' Review

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November 14, 2019
Hunter Friesen
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If you’re going to make a movie about the Nazis, you better make sure it’s going to be good. Multiply that rule by infinity if you’re going to make it a comedy. 

Because of this strict rule, only a select few have been able to take the greatest human atrocity of the modern era and turn it into a joke. Charlie Chaplin did it in 1940 with The Great Dictator (although he wasn’t fully aware of the horrors), followed by Roberto Benigni with Life is Beautiful in 1998. Now in 2019, Taika Waititi has added his name to that illustrious list with his newest film, Jojo Rabbit.

Set in the waning months of World War II, this “anti-hate satire” follows the life of Jojo Betzler, a young boy growing up in the Hitler Youth. His patriotism runs so high Adolf Hitler himself acts as his imaginary friend. One day, Jojo discovers that his mother is hiding a Jewish girl named Elsa in their walls. This bewilders the boy, putting him in a quandary over what to do with his foreign guest. With an enemy in his home, Jojo must confront his nationalistic ideals and learn for himself what truly lies within the people he was born to hate.

Apart from a few problems structurally and tonally, Jojo Rabbit is near faultlessly helmed by New Zealand native and Thor: Ragnarok director, Taika Waititi. From the often symmetric shot composition to the sumptuous production design, Jojo Rabbit is the most Wes Anderson-esque film that Wes Anderson didn’t direct. It does feel like Waititi is copying a little too hard from time to time, but the distinct whimsical style he employs effortlessly immerses the audience into the satirical world.

Aiding this immersion, Waititi does what he knows best and interweaves comedy with drama as he pokes fun at the Nazis while also using them as a smaller target for his much grander message. That message is of peace and love, which can be authentically found within this story, especially in the interactions between Jojo and Elsa.

A negative side effect of Waititi’s fluent directing is that it makes his middling writing stick it like a sore thumb. His risque plot eventually gets boiled down to a slightly over-simplistic message that isn’t able to land its punches as hard as it should. Weirdly, it all feels a little too safe for this kind of setting with these types of characters.

The film also starts to lose its way around the middle third as a few of its many ideas and characters get lost in the shuffle. A few reveals are shocking, but only because not enough time was put into them to make us believe they were important enough in the first place. 

Even with these problems looming throughout the runtime, the script does have its shining individual moments. The slapstick one-liners mostly all land and the heart-tugging dramatic lines do hit close to home.

With an assembled all-star cast, Jojo Rabbit is filled with great performances from A-list stars and fresh discoveries. The biggest hidden treasure that has been unearthed is the talent of Roman Griffin Davis. In his first-ever role, Davis perfectly translates his precocious character from the page to the screen. The future will be deservedly bright for him. 

Young star Thomasin McKenzie also does excellent work as Elsa. She already made a name for herself with last year’s Leave No Trace and her role here further solidifies her strong track record. 

Scarlett Johansson plays Rosie, Jojo’s sympathetic mother who takes in Elsa for hiding. Away from her usual Marvel role, this may be Johansson’s best work in years as she is both hilarious and endearing. 

In more purely comedic roles, Taikia Waittiti and Sam Rockwell are a blast as Adolf Hitler and Captain Kenzendorf, respectively. 

Taking the horrors of humanity and turning it into a comedic moral lesson is no small feat, especially when you target the worst of the worst. So even with his struggles here and there, immense credit should go to Waititi as he has crafted one of the better films of the year and made something that will be timeless in its message and morals.

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