When Jojo Rabbit first came out, I did a thematic analysis where I basically stated it is shallow and doesn’t justify its comedic use of Adolf Hitler, arguably the most evil person in modern history. I mostly still stand behind this sentiment nine months later, but in the same timespan I’ve seen plenty of people rave about why they love the film, and it won an Academy Award while being nominated for an additional five. Since Jojo Rabbit is now on HBO Max, I felt like it was a good time to give it a second shot.
And upon my first rewatch… I still don’t get the hype over this movie. In my initial review, I likened Jojo Rabbit to Green Book (which I actually really liked at first, before I was educated and came to understand its underlying problems – I certainly don’t think it’s the best of the group I mentioned in my review anymore). Green Book takes something incredibly complex – racism – and presents it as something fairly simple. This is an oversimplification, but Tony Lip essentially learns that Black people are actually deserving of the same rights and capable of the same things as white people, and that he shouldn’t talk to Don Shirley about what “his people” are supposed to like. Imagine that.
I also stand by my comparison of Jojo Rabbit to Green Book. Mostly. Jojo, a young boy in Nazi Germany who is enamored with the person of Adolf Hitler, begins the movie thinking Jewish people are monsters hiding in human bodies who will do all kinds of vile things to you like control your mind. When Jojo finds out that his mother is hiding a Jewish teenager in the walls upstairs, he comes to learn that, of course, they are humans completely deserving of rights just like everyone else. These ideas shouldn’t be too profound. But what differentiates Jojo Rabbit from Green Book is the way it’s portrayed through the eyes of a 10-year-old boy.
Personally, I can relate to Jojo in that I grew up indoctrinated in a very specific belief system and structure. Of course, growing up in a conservative and legalistic Christian worldview is much different than growing up in a Nazi regime, but I’ve evolved in how I view the ideas I was taught as a child. For a long time I pretty much held the exact beliefs I had when I was 10. Had I not been able to grow and mature into a more sophisticated worldview, I might still think the same way I did then. The difference between myself and Jojo though, is the danger which comes along with the way he sees the world. He’s only 10 and he’s already going around speaking about how much he hates Jews and how he would kill one if given the chance. A kid like him could grow up to commit heinous monstrosities because of what he believes at this point in his life.
Jojo’s indoctrination is manifested in the film through Hitler being his imaginary friend because in reality, what Jojo is infatuated with is the charismatic figure of Hitler and not necessarily Hitler’s ideals. The ideals are just a result of the infatuation. At face value, I really like the idea of having this imaginary friend. It works well to encapsulate what can go through the head of a kid like Jojo – he has to have this attitude because the authority figure says so. So why not incorporate said figure?
But where the movie ultimately falters is in justifying having such a character in the context of this specific movie. In a Vanity Fair piece, writer-director-star Taika Waititi discusses the idea of viewing Nazi Germany through the eyes of a child and how this idea is, understandably, appealing to him. He says, “As a way to externalize the battle that is going on in Jojo’s head throughout the film, I added in [from the book he was adapting, Caging Skies] the imaginary Hitler character.” But then he goes on to say, “I’ve always used humor to present my ideas, and if I were to be true to myself and my sensibilities, this had to be the same.”
While I understand where Waititi is coming from with this quote, I can’t help but feel uncomfortable with it. I still haven’t seen his first two movies (Boy and Eagle vs Shark) but I love each of What We Do in the Shadows, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, and Thor: Ragnarok, so I really wanted to love Jojo Rabbit. Waititi is immensely talented at infusing personal drama with witty, clever humor. I totally understand and agree with what people love about him as a filmmaker. But in his position, you have to know what is and isn’t the right time to use your signature vehicle (comedy). Bringing comedy into a movie about the Holocaust or Nazi Germany is one thing (think Life is Beautiful), but making Hitler himself the centerpiece of a lot of that humor is a completely different monster.
Like I said, I wanted to like Jojo Rabbit when I first sat down to watch it. I had faith in Waititi to do something special with this idea. But I think this movie is just him reaching too far. In a vacuum, a lot of the jokes are funny. But I always come back to how Hitler is the source of the comedy and it just doesn’t sit well with me. When you’re attempting to make a movie about such serious subject matter, you need to do it without fault and you need to be saying something profound or original. It’s the difference between Schindler’s List and Jojo Rabbit, BlacKkKlansman and Imperium, or Do the Right Thing and Green Book.
I’m not saying Jojo Rabbit is a bad movie, but I also don’t think it’s any better than “solid.” It does interpersonal relationships with comedy mixed in very well and it has a ton of heart, but I just don’t think it ever justifies its backdrop.