Although I’m a fan of director Taika Waititi, the first trailer for Jojo Rabbit didn’t inspire much confidence. The scene of an imaginary Hitler comforting a ten-year-old boy fell pretty flat. Waititi isn’t the first person to mine World War II for laughs. Charlie Chaplin, Mel Brooks, and the TV show Hogan’s Heroes have made light of Hitler and the Nazis. Does Waititi find new ground to cover? Oh yes. And thankfully, there’s more to the film than hinted at in the trailer.
Roman Griffin Davis plays Jojo, a German Bart Simpson, whose imaginary friend is Adolph Hitler. Jojo is full of patriotism and fanaticism. Like most young boys, he does not want to admit he has anything as tender as a heart, but his innocence betrays him.
Waititi himself plays Hitler, and portrays him as absurd, funny…and scary. He brings the same comedic sensibility to this role as he does to Korg in the MCU films.
The imaginary friend aspect leads to some great moments of physical comedy, such as what Jojo imagines Hitler eats or how he has Hitler exit a scene. Hitler does not become a sympathetic figure like I was concerned he might. Instead, he remains mostly a figure of ridicule….taken seriously by Jojo, much less so by the audience. By his final scene, Jojo has seen the monstrous side of Hitler more than once.
Sam Rockwell plays the worst soldier/Nazi in the world. The fact that he is put in charge of a camp full of children is both hilarious and terrifying. At this point, we are going to have to deal with the fact that Rockwell is going to be a contender for Best Supporting Actor nearly every year for the foreseeable future. If he got a nomination for playing W in Vice last year, he’s got a shot at Oscar gold again for playing yet another bad boy misfit. (One who has a memorable and redemptive final scene.)
Scarlett Johansson is also probably in the Oscar race for Best Actress (or Best Supporting Actress, depending on Oscar politics) for her role as Jojo’s mother. Her zest for life recalls characters like Maude from Harold and Maude or Anthony Quinn’s Zorba.
Thomasin McKenzie, who was so good in last year’s Leave No Trace, plays a Jew Jojo’s mother is sheltering. McKenzie continues to do stunning work as a young actress.
Archie Yates plays Jojo’s buddy Yorki. Yates is effortlessly funny and a total scene stealer. I hope to see more of him in the future.
Although it’s rare for younger male actors to be nominated, Davis could receive a Best Actor nomination for his role as Jojo. His face is so expressive. He carries a lot of the film. He plays a complex character. And he captures the essence of childhood without being cutesy, cloying, or manipulative.
Jojo Rabbit exists in its own universe, combining the madcap comedy of a Mel Brooks film with something more emotional and dramatic. It’s rare for a comedic film to make it to the Oscars, however, this one will probably get a Best Picture nomination. It has already won the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival. Since 2011, every People’s Choice Award winner has gotten a Best Picture nom. This one certainly deserves consideration.
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