Sunday, October 4, 2020

JoJo Rabbit Delivers Laughs Through Tears

Taika Waititi as Hitler and Roman Griffin Davis as Jojo in Jojo Rabbit
    Disney / 20th Century Fox

JoJo Rabbit Delivers Laughs Through Tears    

I really wanted to tear this movie apart in my review. Looking forward to collecting as much ammunition as possible, I went into the theater expecting to be thoroughly disgusted with JoJo Rabbit. But instead, Taika Waititi's take on a German ten-year old boy's experience of the waning days of World War 2 actually struck the right balance of satire and drama. The main character Johannes Betzler, nicknamed JoJo Rabbit, was perfectly played by Roman Griffin Davis as a naive kid drawn into the Nazi Hitler Youth ideology. Oh, and by the way, JoJo Rabbit has an imaginary best friend - Adolf Hitler himself, played by Taika Waititi.

The imaginary Fuhrer actually represents the image of a Hitler Youth mentality, as perceived ideally by JoJo Rabbit. In reality, all this imaginary friend does is get JoJo in trouble. The movie is full of colorful characters, not the least of which is JoJo's mom - Rosie Betzler, masterfully portrayed by Scarlett Johansson. Rosie sees her son as an indoctrinated follower of a falling regime, unwilling to fully share her understanding and all that she does with him. But she is protective of her son and often clashes with Captain Klenzendorf, played by Sam Rockwell, when her son's well being is threatened.   

A large component of JoJo Rabbit's raison d'ĂȘtre is the deconstruction of Nazi ideology regarding how Jewish people are perceived. More specifically, how JoJo perceives Jewish people before and after he comes face to face with one. He accidentally discovers that his mother Rosie, is sheltering a Jewish girl in their attic. Elsa, played by Thomasin McKenzie, was a friend of JoJo's late sister Inga, and Rosie just couldn't let her fall victim to the Nazi regime. Here, the perfectly incendiary screenplay of how a kid's first real belief in the regime, and in his mother, crumble to transform him into a better human being is undeniably one of this movie's greatest attributes.

Important Meaning Within JoJo Rabbit

There is a plethora of meaning within JoJo Rabbit, which I will not divulge entirely. I will leave a lot of it to be discovered by those readers who will go and see the movie. But, I will give some potent highlights here. When Rosie and JoJo come up to city's center square, they see several people that have been hanged. At this point JoJo asks his mom "What did they do?", to which she replies "What they could do". Here we see a ten year old boy confronted with death, and his mother's explanation offers no solace. It is an important departure from the regime, which labeled the condemned as traitors, deserving of death. Rosie attempts to show her son that war and violence are temporary, and love is important - it perseveres, and all she wants to do after the violence subsides is dance. 

The fact that we are watching the story of a ten year old kid, is conveyed very clearly. JoJo Rabbit cannot even tie his own shoelaces, requiring assistance from his mother. This symbolism is indicative of sharing with the audience that this kid's beliefs are not fully developed yet and not to judge him harshly. Most importantly the movie challenges the audience, young and old, to get in touch with their ten year old selves and be open to challenge their existing beliefs to confirm that they are humane - to be able to grow as human beings. JoJo is only able to tie shoelaces much later in the movie, when he is grown as a human being and actually cares.

The propaganda machine is also clearly represented in this movie. JoJo Rabbit first shows this at the Hitler Youth camp, where boys are encouraged to be trained in combat related activities, while the girls are coached for child birth. The mob mentality is so well crafted, that you see swarms of youths following through with training, even when it doesn't make any logical or practical sense. Here Fraulein Rahm, played by Rebel Wilson, plays a crucial role in disseminating the ridiculous. Frauline Rahm is also instrumental at other times, including the follow-up at the Hitler Youth headquarters, where she instructs JoJo should walk the 'clones'. The satirical absurdity of walking the clones refers to the propaganda machine of keeping the morale up despite an unwinnable situation.   

Tragedy, Love, and Dancing 

As young JoJo finds himself challenging his Nazi beliefs, he begins to experience the very emotions Rosie told him about. He finds that he's not beyond ability to love another person. JoJo also confronts the Gestapo who search his parents' house thoroughly, despite his father being an army man and himself being a devoted Hitler Youth member. I urge the viewer from the opening scenes of JoJo Rabbit to pay attention to the shoes and shoelaces, because the big gasp moment in this movie is downright heartbreaking and hits a powerful tone regarding what a person believes and whom a person follows.

Having experienced these new emotions, JoJo Rabbit is no longer the child we see at the beginning of the movie. He is now an emotionally driven, if still somewhat immature, person who understands love, loss, and the value of life. And that imaginary friend, who has gotten him in so much trouble through all the bad advice, JoJo finally stands up to him in a big way. The erosion of the kid's belief system coincides with the Allied assault on the heart of Nazi Germany, where JoJo witnesses the futility and sheer madness of the last gasp Volksturm defense of the city. Unwilling to follow the Nazi instructions, he flees the scene of the battle.

After all of the fighting, JoJo has a very important choice to make - to lie or not to lie. If JoJo Rabbit will tell the truth, there's a good chance that he will not see his love again. But if he lies, the girl he loves may never forgive him. It is a situation that displays the kid's youth and inexperience, but also his ability to defy his own beliefs and care for what's truly important to him. The silver lining in all of the events happening around him is that he gets to experience the very thing his mother looked forward to all this time - something that JoJo didn't understand, until he finally experienced for himself.  

JoJo Rabbit to Johannes Betzler

The quick progression, and forced transformation, of a naive kid into a more cognizant adolescent is very well scripted and executed here. All the characters in the timeline of this movie provide important, if not always large, nuances in JoJo's development. By the very end, you can see the main character as a stand up individual who doesn't need his imaginary friend anymore to make key decisions in his life. Despite his wrong decisions, JoJo Rabbit is fortunate to have the people around him recognize his youth and inexperience, giving him significant leniency and help. This good fortune, allows our main character to become the man his mother always wished he would become.  

As far as risky topic satire is concerned, JoJo Rabbit shines and entertains at every corner. The movie as a coming of age story of a child who is indoctrinated in hateful ideology, but develops beyond it with the help of his mother and others along his journey. Rotten Tomatoes' critics have given this movie a certified fresh grade of 79% approval, while Metacritic has given it a mixed score of 58 so far. I will have to give it a better score than the latter. Despite the one crude joke, indicative of a ten year old boy, this original movie entertains and draws tears from its audience. Here Taika Waititi was able to successfully combine historical satire through the lens of a ten year old boy and provide important message on hate and intolerance. I give it a top score of 4.5 out of 5.0 stars.

Until next time, grab your popcorn, milk duds, turn off the phone, and enjoy the movie.