I believe this is a first here on The DisInsider: a review of a FOX film. And not just any FOX film, a dark, satirical look at Nazism during World War II. Not exactly the kind of kid-friendly material we’re used to dealing with around here.
Except kids should see Jojo Rabbit. Maybe not really young ones since it is a PG-13 movie complete with war violence, mature themes, and one perfectly-placed f-bomb, but this movie is a must-see for those in the pre-teen age range of the titular character. Because whether people want to brand this film as a comedy with dramatic scenes, a drama with comedic scenes, or as the “anti-hate satire” the movie’s marketing has been referring to it as, it is, above all, a coming of age story, and one that is much-needed in the current political climate.
Loosely based on the novel Caging Skies by Christine Leunens, the Taika Waititi-directed Jojo Rabbit takes us to the end of World War II through the eyes of ten-year-old Jojo Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis) who is determined to serve Germany as part of the Hitler Youth program with his own personal imaginary Hitler (Waititi) as his spirit guide of sorts while his father is off at war. What he doesn’t know is his mother (Scarlett Johansson) has been hiding a Jewish girl (Thomasin McKenzie) in the walls of their home, and when he discovers the truth he is torn between his loyalty to his family or his fuehrer.
It’s a tough balancing act to make a comedy about something so upsetting without shying away from the horrors of the subject matter, but Jojo Rabbit takes the very smart approach of showing us this world from the viewpoint of its titular character. At first, Jojo’s world is visually warm and inviting, his idealization and blind fanaticism of Hitler and eagerness to be accepted and belong to something important clouding his worldview, and it may appear that the film may be falling into the same “trap” of being too lighthearted that some viewers criticized Waititi’s most recent venture, Thor: Ragnarok, for. And Jojo‘s uncomfortable subject matter has it saddled with the added criticism of taking the jokes either too far or not far enough depending on who you’re talking to. (I do sort of wish they went further in some instances, but most of it is pretty fitting considering we’re seeing things from a child’s point of view.)
But as the film progresses and Jojo starts to question what he has been aspiring to, the world around him appears increasingly bleaker and we get more and more darkness and heartbreaking moments. There are even some appropriate time outs from the quick-witted and zany comedy that dominates the first act. The jokes are never gone for long, but when it’s time for them to be shown the door for a bit, they are. So while Jojo and the audience are largely sheltered from the truly terrifying aspects of the war at first, skeptical viewers can rest assured we do get there eventually.
The concern that the message of this movie will get muddled in all the wacky antics isn’t exactly invalid (certain critics seem to have difficulty getting past the comedy, or are at least convinced audiences won’t be able to) but my hope is that, as seems to be happening so far, the comedy will aid it in resonating with moviegoers, particularly younger ones. Jojo Rabbit humanizes many of the Nazi characters, but never to the level of even coming close to implying what they’re doing is right (we’re laughing at them, not with them). It shows us the appeal of being part of their crowd while clearly demonstrating why they are ultimately in the wrong. As is put in the film, Jojo doesn’t truly embrace the ideals of the Nazi party, he’s simply “a ten-year-old boy who likes dressing up in a funny uniform and wants to be part of a club”. That’s something that far too many youth in today’s world may relate to, and that’s why this movie is so important for today’s kids to see.
Jojo Rabbit is currently part of the 44th Toronto International Film Festival lineup, will be among the films shown at Fantastic Fest later this month, and will open in the US and New Zealand markets on October 18.