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'Jojo Rabbit,' Your Reich Is Calling

Oct 17, 2019
Originally published on October 17, 2019 4:59 pm

Taika Waititi may be best known for directing the Marvel blockbuster Thor: Ragnarok, but what got him that job was smaller movies like Boy and Hunt for the Wilderpeople — films best described as "quirky."

That epithet fits his latest film, Jojo Rabbit, about a little boy in Nazi Germany who has an imaginary friend named Adolf Hitler.

How quirky is it? Consider: When the film begins, a drumroll kicks off the familiar 20th Century Fox opening fanfare, and you'll think — for about one second — that all's normal. But as the Fox searchlights sweep the sky, the drums and horns turn into what sounds like a German drinking song, sung by children.

Shortly after, we see images of Nazi soldiers saluting the Führer as the Beatles sing "Komm Gib Mir Deine Hand."

We're in 1944 Berlin, where 10-year-old Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) is having a rough first day of Nazi Summer Camp, and being consoled by an imaginary friend whose toothbrush moustache and swastika'd uniform clearly identify him — though this is a much cheerier, chummier Adolf Hitler than the one you'd recognize from newsreels.

As played by writer-director Taika Waititi, this imaginary Führer is a nice guy — which makes sense, as he's a figment of the imagination of a nice 10-year-old.

As setups go, Jojo Rabbit's treatment of history's most reviled mass murderer qualifies as ... unusual ... though hardly unprecedented: Charlie Chaplin played a Hitler-like Adenoid Hynkel in The Great Dictator, when the real Hitler was still around. Mel Brooks mocked him after World War II in The Producers, Quentin Tarantino created a revenge fantasy in Inglorious Basterds. So Waititi's not treading new ground here, just offering a new take.

His comic idea is much like Chaplin's: to deconstruct fascist thinking. He makes little Jojo a propaganda-fed child so innocent that he's never learned to tie his shoes, then helps him to puzzle out the dense network of lies that surrounds him.

Assisting with both the shoelaces and the life-lessons is his mom, played by Scarlett Johansson. Also on hand is Sam Rockwell as Jojo's camp counselor, who's aware that the Nazi jig is up, but plans to dance it away.

And there's a Jewish girl hiding in the attic, played by Thomasin McKensie, who not-so-gently challenges the notions he's built his young life on. "You're not a Nazi, Jojo," she says, "you're a 10-year-old kid who likes dressing up in a funny uniform and wants to be part of a club."

Jojo Rabbit is gently comic for a while, and then surprisingly affecting at the end, so perhaps it's not fair to wish that Waititi had opted to deal more directly with the horrors of the Third Reich. We are, after all, living in a time when fascism is again a growing threat.

Not what he was going for, though — he's content to sidestep the atrocities, concentrate on the indoctrination of children, and let his young hero — and by proxy, the audience — learn life lessons that get tied up, like a child's shoelace, with a neat little bow.

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Taika Waititi is best known for directing the Marvel blockbuster "Thor: Ragnarok." But what got him that job were smaller movies that might best be described as quirky. Critic Bob Mondello says that description also fits his latest film, "Jojo Rabbit." It's about a little boy in Nazi Germany who has an imaginary friend named Adolf Hitler.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: When a drumroll starts the 20th Century Fox fanfare, you'll think for about one second that all is normal. But as the Fox searchlights sweep the sky, what's playing is what sounds like a German drinking song sung by children. Shortly after, we see images of Nazi soldiers saluting the Fuhrer as the Beatles sing "Komm, Gib Mir Deine Hand."

We're in 1944 Berlin, where 10-year-old Jojo is having a rough first day of Nazi summer camp and being consoled by an imaginary friend whose toothbrush mustache and swastika'd uniform clearly identify him but who sounds...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JOJO RABBIT")

TAIKA WAITITI: (As Adolf) Poor Jojo. What's wrong, little man?

MONDELLO: ...Not as you'd expect.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JOJO RABBIT")

ROMAN GRIFFIN DAVIS: (As Jojo) Hi, Adolf.

WAITITI: (As Adolf) Want to tell me about that rabbit incident? What was all that about?

DAVIS: (As Jojo) They wanted me to kill it. I'm sorry. I couldn't.

WAITITI: (As Adolf) Don't worry about it.

MONDELLO: Writer-director Taika Waititi plays the imaginary Hitler. And as he's a figment of the imagination of a nice 10-year-old, he's a nice guy.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JOJO RABBIT")

WAITITI: (As Adolf) Let me give you some really good advice. Be the rabbit. The humble bunny can outwit all of his enemies. He's brave and sneaky and strong. Be the rabbit.

MONDELLO: Jojo's best real friend...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JOJO RABBIT")

ARCHIE YATES: (As Yorki) Are you all right, Jojo? Who are you talking to?

DAVIS: (As Jojo) Nobody.

MONDELLO: That is literally true, as Adolf's never actually been around. As setups go, this treatment of history's most reviled mass murderer qualifies as unusual, though hardly unprecedented. Charlie Chaplin played a Hitler-like Adenoid Hynkel in "The Great Dictator" when the real Hitler was still around. Mel Brooks mocked the Fuhrer after World War II in "The Producers." Quentin Tarantino created a revenge fantasy in "Inglourious Basterds." So Waititi's not treading new ground here, just offering a new take.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JOJO RABBIT")

DAVIS: (As Jojo) What am I going to do?

WAITITI: (As Adolf) No idea.

ROMAN GRIFFIN DAVIS AND TAIKA WAITITI: (As Adolf and Jojo) Got it.

DAVIS: (As Jojo) I'll negotiate.

WAITITI: (As Adolf) Burn down the house and blame Winston Churchill.

MONDELLO: His comic idea is much like Chaplin's - to deconstruct fascist thinking. He makes Jojo a propaganda-fed child so innocent he's never learned to tie his shoes, then helps him puzzle out the lies. Assisting with the shoelaces and with life lessons is his mom, played by Scarlett Johansson.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JOJO RABBIT")

SCARLETT JOHANSSON: (As Rosie) Someday you'll meet someone special. Love is the strongest thing in the world.

DAVIS: (As Jojo) I think you'll find that metal is the strongest thing in the world, followed closely by dynamite and then muscles.

MONDELLO: Also, Sam Rockwell as Jojo's camp counselor who's aware that the Nazi jig is up but plans to dance it away.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JOJO RABBIT")

SAM ROCKWELL: (As Captain Klenzendorf) Guys, this is yjr kid I told you about. He stole a hand grenade and blew himself up. And as a result, I got demoted for negligence. Now I get to work in this office with all these wonderful kids.

MONDELLO: And a Jewish girl hiding in the attic played by Thomasin McKenzie.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JOJO RABBIT")

THOMASIN MCKENZIE: (As Elsa) You're not nuts, Jojo. You're a 10-year-old kid who likes dressing up in a funny uniform and wants to be part of a club.

MONDELLO: "Jojo Rabbit" is gently comic for a while and then surprisingly affecting at the end. So perhaps it's not fair to wish that Waititi had opted to deal more directly with the horrors of the Third Reich. We are, after all, living in a time when fascism is again a growing threat worldwide - not what he was going for, though. He's content to sidestep the atrocities, concentrate on the indoctrination of children, and let his young hero - and by proxy, the audience - learn life lessons...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JOJO RABBIT")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Your shoelaces are undone again.

MONDELLO: ...That are tied up with a neat little bow.

I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.