Review: Jojo Rabbit (TIFF 2019)

Last Updated on August 2, 2021

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PLOT: During the final days of World War 2, a young German boy, Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis), who’s a fanatical devotee of the Third Reich, to the extent that his imaginary best friend is Adolf Hitler (Taika Waititi), finds his beliefs challenged when he discovers that his mother (Scarlett Johansson) is hiding a Jewish teen (Thomasin McKenzie) in their home.

REVIEW: Opinion will be divided over whether or not Taika Waititi, on the clout he built up off-of three straight hits, WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS, THE HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE and the blockbuster THOR: RAGNAROK, bit off more than he could chew with the ambitious JOJO RABBIT. He certainly didn’t make it easy on himself, by opting to make a WW2-era satiric family film set in Nazi Germany which tackles the Holocaust. While it’s arguably a lesser work than his previous features, JOJO RABBIT is still a strong effort with some transcendently humane moments that will strike a chord with even the most cynical audience members.

Once again, Waititi proves his genius as far as working with child actors goes, with Roman Griffin Davis terrific as the fanatical but likable Jojo. That’s not an easy balance to strike, given that he spends most of the film idolizing Hitler and spewing hate. What Waititi does so brilliantly is covey the absolute idiocy of hate, with his mom, played by a warm Scarlet Johansson, in some ways the audience surrogate, as, despite her exasperation, she tries to find that shred of humanity left in her son before she can’t recognize him at all. To a degree, the movie is a battle over his soul, with her embodying all the good that’s left inside him, while the buffoonish Hitler surrogate, played by Waititi in a performance that owes much to Chaplin in THE GREAT DICTATOR, tries to make him hate with all of his heart.

Despite her billing, Johansson’s role is a supporting one (as is Waititi’s – even if the previews emphasize it the imaginary Hitler isn’t used all that much) with the real leads being not only Davis but also Thomasin McKenzie, who’s rising fast on the heels of her work in LEAVE NO TRACE. No mere victim, McKenzie’s allowed to play a fully three-dimensional character here, is just as consumed by hate as Jojo, albeit for a much more understandable reason. It’s only as the two start to find common ground they both start to regain their humanity, and the two have marvelous chemistry.

Jojo Rabbit Taika Waititi

It should also be noted that JOJO RABBIT is undeniably meant as a family film. Waititi has a message he wants to convey to kids about our history, and this is his vessel. Yet, he's made it a really fun watch, with a good dose of irreverent humor, with early scenes depicting a kind of Nazi summer camp for the Hitler Youth pretty hilarious. Rebel Wilson, Alfie Allen, and Stephen Merchant play their Nazi characters in an intentionally cartoonish, broad way although Sam Rockwell as the one-eyed commandant is given a bit more to work with. No one can play a through-and-through bastard with redemptive qualities like he can, and his scenes are among the best in the film.

While meant for kids, Waititi’s also thrown in some brutal, realistic moments that bring JOJO RABBIT back down to earth any time it threatens to get too fanciful, including one or two that made the audience I saw this with gasp. Like his other movies, Waititi also infuses this with a lot of style, with beautiful cinematography by THE MASTER’s Mihai Malaimare Jr, and a cool selection of highly anachronistic pop tunes, most of which are presented in alternate versions recorded for the German market by artists like The Beatles, Roy Orbison and David Bowie.

Certainly, JOJO RABBIT won’t be to everyone’s tastes, but it’s a thoughtful, well-intentioned piece of work that often works brilliantly. Some will love it, some will despise it, but hopefully, none will dismiss it.

Jojo Rabbit



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About the Author

Chris Bumbray began his career with JoBlo as the resident film critic (and James Bond expert) way back in 2007, and he has stuck around ever since, being named editor-in-chief in 2021. A voting member of the CCA and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved critic, you can also catch Chris discussing pop culture regularly on CTV News Channel.