Like many 10-year-old boys, “Jojo Rabbit” has an imaginary friend who he converses with as he tries to figure out his place in the world.
But young Jojo’s imaginary friend isn’t a talking animal, otherworldly spirit or superhero. He’s Adolf Hitler.
And it’s Jojo’s desire to be a good Nazi and please his friend that powers the comedy drama from Taika Waititi, the New Zealand filmmaker who specializes in offbeat, delicately balanced comedic fare like “The Hunt for the Wilderpeople” and had a huge Marvel hit with “Thor: Ragnarok”
Waititi, who wrote, produced and directed “Jojo Rabbit” also plays Hitler in a buffoonish, comic style. He’s certainly not seen as any kind of hero. But, from Jojo’s viewpoint, he’s not seen as evil — at least for awhile.
That’s where the heart of the film comes in Jojo (superbly played by Roman Griffin Davis in his screen debut) is first seen heading off to a weekend youth camp, where he’s going to learn to be a good young Nazi, courtesy of one-eyed drunken Capt. Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell, always a mark of quality for a movie) and the gun-toting, rule following Frau Rahm (Rebel Wilson).
To say the camp doesn’t go well for Jojo is an understatement. Without revealing too much, he comes home disgraced and disfigured. But his mom Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) forces Klenzendorf to let the boy work for the Nazi cause, putting up posters, dropping off conscription notices and, in Jojo’s personal quest, rooting out Jews.
Jojo, of course, is just a kid and doesn’t understand the ramifications of what he’s doing. But then he makes a stunning discovery — his mother is hiding a girl in the attic and Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) is Jewish.
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That sets the stage for the second half of the film that finds Jojo unraveling the Nazi anti-Semitism as he becomes closer to Elsa, sees her and Rosie acting with selfless courage and Klenzendorf, well, I won't give that away.
As the picture, set in the final months of World War II in Germany, moves to the end, there’s some wartime violence — which is never funny. Nor is the anti-Semitism, the terror created by the Gestapo or Elsa’s plight.
But Waititi and the uniformly excellent cast manage to inject the picture with humor, especially early on, striking a balance between the serious issues and increasing drama and the satiric comedy lampooning the Nazis, Hitler and the little boy who is a believer in the Third Reich even though he clearly doesn’t know what it really is.
That said, “Jojo Rabbit” has been, to some measure, rightfully criticized for delivering a satire without the requisite bite. But, that’s Waititi’s style — and it’s also likely one of the reasons why “Jojo Rabbit” took the People’s Choice Award at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival.
What difference does a film festival award make? Well, last year’s People’s Choice Award winner “Green Book” went on to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. And its predecessors, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” “La La Land” and “Room” all received best pictures nominations.
Does that mean “Jojo Rabbit” is a shoo-in for a best picture nod? Of course not. But it does put the picture on the Oscar track, likely to get as many as 10 nominations.
Any awards attention “Jojo Rabbit” gets will be well deserved — it’s a funny, touching and, frankly, brave approach to the predictable, overworked Nazi film genre, made fresh by Waititi’s ability to find the story’s laughs, drama and heart.