Writer/director Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit follows a rambunctious German boy who develops a peculiar imaginary friendship with Adolf Hitler. Jojo Betzler, played by Roman Griffin Davis, is trying to adjust to the sudden death of his sister and to reports that his father was a coward who abandoned his post during World War II.. The film is based on Christine Leunens’ novel “Caging Skies.”
Jojo has recently turned 10, which at long last allows him to enlist in The Hitler Youth run by Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell), a loose cannon deeply resentful of holding this job because he fouled up a mission that left him only able to see out of one eye. Disaster strikes when he encourages campers to mock Jojo for an inability to kill a rabbit.
The miserable lad is suddenly visited by Adolf (Taika Waititi) who encourages him to wear the nickname as a badge of honor. Adolph says people are forever calling him a lunatic and that never matters to him. He insists Jojo needs to act like a rabbit and be bold, sneaky, humble, and above all strong. This inspires Jojo to grab a live grenade out of Captian Klenzendorf hands after he lit it in front of his fellow campers to demonstrate proper use.
Rendered temporarily comatose, Jojo awakens with severe lacerations to his face and a permanent inability to apply any weight to one of his legs. Jojo's mother (Scarlett Johansson) tries to quell her son's anger and depression by lashing out at Captain Klenzendorf, forcing him to include her young son in his program despite his newfound ineligibility to ever become a solider in Hitler's ranks.
Jojo gets startled one afternoon because he hears constant thumping coming from upstairs when he knows his mother isn’t home. Upon further investigation, he discovers the sound comes from within the attic wall. He feels thoroughly disgusted to discover a 15-year-old girl named Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) crouched in a secret passageway accessible through the room. Jojo’s initial instinct is to expose Elsa to Hitler’s Secret Police who will most certainly murder her, but Elsa physically threatens Jojo before highlighting the enormous risk not only to her safety but that of his mother and himself.
As the days continue to unfold, Elsa offers to divulge confidential information about Jewish people so that Jojo can create a volume of illustrations and outlandish stories she concocts to help earn him Captain Klenzendorf’s unwavering devotion in exchange for continued silence.
I really identified with Thomasin’s authentic, courageous, and engaging performance as Elsa. I instantly empathized with her character’s plight. And Davis -- who beat out 1,000 other actors in an audition to become JoJo -- possesses talent, maturity and thoughtfulness that belies his age. He portrays Jojo as extremely naïve, easily misled and completely oblivious to the evil that transpires around him.
Jojo Rabbit succeeds because of writer/director Waititi’s decision to make his portrayal of Adolf Hitler as comedic and chaotic as possible in order to counterbalance scenes depicting intense hatred, prejudice and drama. “In Jojo Rabbit, I bring the audience in with laughter,” Waititi explains. “Once they’ve dropped their guard, I start delivering these little payloads of drama that have serious weight to them.”
(Released by Fox Searchlight Pictures. Rated PG-13 for mature thematic content, some disturbing images, violence, and language.)