Satire in dark times can be an effective weapon in the fight against the darkness. We’re in some quite bleak times with the rise of extremist hate groups in the U.S. and Europe. Hate is an insidious beast and I welcome anything that works to tear away at that kind of insidiousness. And Jojo Rabbit earnestly tries to tackle the virulence of hate with enough artistic integrity, humor, and heart to be worthy of its critical applause. Recommended.
The Production: 4/5
“There are no weak Jews. I am descended from those who wrestle angels and kill giants. We were chosen by God. You were chosen by a fat man with greasy hair and half a moustache.”
In a small German village at the tail end of World War II, Johannes “Jojo” Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis) eagerly joins Deutsches Jungvolk, Hitler’s youth training camp, in his bid to do his part for the war effort. Egged on by his imaginary friend, Adolf Hitler (Taika Waititi). An awkward little boy, loved with a sense of playfulness and sincerity by his mother, Rose (played by Scarlett Johansson,) Jojo isn’t like the other ‘recruits’. Under the unusual leadership of Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell) and assisted by Fräulein Rahm (Alfie Allen), Jojo’s enthusiasm is unrelenting, but when he discovers a young Jewish girl hidden away in the walls of his late sister’s room, Jojo’s certainty is challenged.
Waititi’s script is quite marvelous. A whisper on the side of whimsy, it succeeds in ridiculing the utterly abhorrent nature of blind nationalism, twisting its comedic knife gently while it slowly unwinds a path out of ignorance for the young Jojo. Jojo’s journey of putting a face on his “enemy” and rationalizing what he’s been taught and what he’s seeing and hearing, is quite something. In an age where fact and reality sometimes aren’t enough to shake fools from their hatred, there’s hope in watching a young boy realize, with humor, the error of his ways.
The best satire can expose the ruthless, corrupt, deadly, inept and ignorant in ways that make it impossible to ignore. Dr. Strangelove, The Great Dictator, In the Loop, and even South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut, cut deep with blistering humor. Jojo Rabbit takes a more subtle approach and finds in that subtlety a more indirect way into our hearts. Hate and the rampant, intransigency of white nationalism is still ridiculed, but indirectly. And it somehow, gently, works.
I find that Taika Waititi’s strengths as a writer and director come are born from how the whimsy of his humor is threaded by a pulsing heartbeat of human drama and emotion. Waititi’s 2016 Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a fine example of how he cleverly frames a very human story with a collection of quirks, oddball moments, deadpan deliveries and a smattering of sight gags. For Jojo Rabbit, Waititi channels his humor a little more tightly to best thread the satirical needle given the subject matter. Dealing with Nazis and the fear-induced hatred of Jews that ran like a deadly poison through Germany is, like any subject, open for comedic exploration (if we can’t find humor or opportunity of mockery in even the most serious of subjects, we’re doing something wrong), but the wrong step or balance and the whole thing can fail under its wrong-headed weight. Rabbit fortunately manages to thread that needle rather well and succeeds as much from its adapted screenplay as it does from the abundance of terrific performances.
Leading the strong cast is young Roman Griffin Davis as Jojo. He’s dramatically and comedically on point at every turn. Comedy from deadpan isn’t as easy as you’d think but Davis nails it. As the film develops along with his relationship with the young Jewish girl, Elsa hidden in his house, Davis subtly adjusts to the demands his role, segueing the absurdism of his staunch beliefs and allowing empathy and normalcy to take hold. It’s one of the film’s major strengths. As Elsa, Thomasin McKenzie is wonderfully cast. She imbues Elsa with fragile strength, frightened defiance, and offers a captivatingly instructive, clever and vulnerably partner to the confused Jojo.
I can’t say enough about how marvelous Scarlett Johansson is as Jojo’s mother, Rose. Besides the joy she brings as a playful, devoted mother to Jojo, Johansson seems to manage in glances and expressions the essence of the destructive weight of the Nazi’s campaign against Jews. The film doesn’t show us the brutal reality of that campaign, but Johansson becomes a small window into what that hate-fueled campaign means. And Waititi’s direction, his framing of the world through Jojo’s eyes later in the film, breaks our hearts with the risks and repercussions of standing against that hate.
The rest of the cast, from Jojo’s best friend, Yorki played by a brilliant Archie Yates, Sam Rockwell’s emotionally defeated Captain Klenzendorf, Rebel Wilson’s out of place Fraulein Rahm, Alfie Allen’s reactive Finkel, to Stephen Merchant’s menacing bureaucrat Deertz, are all superb. It’s a golden ensemble. Finally, Waititi’s performance as Hitler is a delight. He’s not in the film as much as you might expect, and that’s a good thing. This isn’t a film about Jojo’s imaginary friend, it’s a film about Jojo who happens to have Hitler as a buffoonish imaginary friend.
There are times in Jojo Rabbit where a deeper cut or harsher commentary on the disgusting views and acts of Nazi’s felt sorely needed. I wonder, though, if that would have seemed like lecturing. Somehow the curve of Jojo’s path to his realization of truth (his soul is saved while Germany retreats and falls) still manages to remind the world that hate cannot sustain a life (or a country, army, or body politic).
A surprising, funny, meaningful satire whose quirks and strong performances deliver one of 2019’s most warm and endearing films.
3D Rating: NA
Framed at 1.85:1, Jojo Rabbit is a good looking 4K release. Much of the color palette is a blend of 1940’s Europe colors, with browns and green/greys balanced with pops of nature’s color, with the forest greens and browns showcased nicely. The reds of flags and can be striking, too, supported by the HDR10 which seems to deepen the saturation. This isn’t reference material, but it appears faithful to its design and intentions and is still great looking.
Jojo Rabbit offers a good English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track that delivers nicely. The film isn’t demanding audio-wise, but when the scene calls for it, the audio delivers (consider the events during the third act as a keen example of how the film comes alive in the surrounds and LFE.)
Michael Giacchino’s subtle and alternately playful and sweet score is showcased very well, with dialogue predominantly in the center channel balanced perfectly.
Special Features: 2.5/5
The only special feature on the 4K disc is the Audio Commentary by director Taika Waititi. The Blu-ray contains the bulk of the extras. All told, this is a disappointingly slim collection of special features for such an awards darling, but the almost 30-minute “Inside Jojo Rabbit” is by far the most compelling and instructive about the impetus behind the film and actors who came aboard the project. The three deleted scenes, heavy on lengthy improve, run about 9 minutes and are rather good though I understand why they didn’t make the cut. The nearly 3.5 minutes of outtakes are fun. The commentary track by director Taika Waititi is a little unconventional. Waititi isn’t really interested in dissecting the choices he made making the film, and he allows long silent stretched punctuated by calls out to fellow actors (Stephen Merchant is a winning guest here). It can be entertaining but not all that rewarding.
- “Imaginary Göring”
- “Little Piggies”
- “Adolf Dies Again”
Inside Jojo Rabbit
Audio Commentary by Taika Waititi
Satire in dark times can be an effective weapon in the fight against the darkness. We’re in some quite bleak times with the rise of extremist hate groups in the U.S. and Europe. Hate is an insidious beast and I welcome anything that works to tear away at that kind of insidiousness. And Jojo Rabbit earnestly tries to tackle the virulence of hate with enough artistic integrity, humor, and heart to be worthy of its critical applause. Recommended.https://smile.amazon.com/Jojo-Rabbit-4k-Ultra-Blu-ray/dp/B081WQGBBB/ref=sr_1_3?keywords=Jojo+rabbit&qid=1583700191&sr=8-3