Jojo Rabbit Blu-ray coverGrade: A
Rated: PG-13
War-comedy-drama

Jojo Rabbit was my personal pick for Best Film of 2019, and watching it again only confirms that for me. It’s a wildly inventive, offbeat, hilarious-yet-poignant critique of Nazism that entertains as it subtly instructs. Since the action takes place in the closing months of WWII, there are some sad moments and some violence, but far less than what’s usually contained in a PG-13 film these days.

One of the most commonly taught books in junior high and high school is The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank, a German-Dutch teenager who spent two years hiding in a secret upstairs section of her father’s pectin factory in the Netherlands with family and friends. She died in a concentration camp, and what the Nazis did to Jews remains a horrible page in the history of humankind. Picture that story with an equally sad death, a better ending, and the kind of quirky laugh-out-loud humor that characterized Taika Waititi’s film “What We Do in the Shadows, and you’ve got a pretty good idea of what this film is like. It’s shockingly funny because, as co-star Sam Rockwell told Imdb.com, “Taika has a really good comedy compass.”

Jojo’s family is down to just two—his mother and him—since an older sister had recently died of influenza and his father was still absent, allegedly fighting for the Germans on the Italian front. As a result, he and his free-spirited mother (Scarlet Johansson) are extremely close, and we see them playfully interacting—he, always the serious one, and she the teaser, the one most likely to play a prank or act spontaneously.

Jojo (wonderfully portrayed by first-time actor Roman Griffin Davis) has two problems: the first is that he’s so clearly sensitive and unsuited to being a Nazi that it underscores the propaganda side of Nazism. Jojo gets his nickname when, during a Hitler Youth training camp, he finds himself unable to kill a rabbit, as ordered. But the second and more pressing problem he faces is that he discovers his mother is secretly sheltering a Jewish girl behind a secret panel in the room where his sister stayed before she died. What’s a Hitler Youth to do?

There’s also a third factor that shapes Jojo’s young life: he’s so brainwashed by the Nazis that his hero, Adolph Hitler, frequently visits him like an imaginary friend, talking to him, giving him advice, and acting more like a Dutch uncle than someone who kills Dutch Jews and those living anywhere within his reach. Waititi, who told TheWrap that the imaginary Hitler was “a lonely boy’s best version of his hero, which is really his dad,” plays Hitler with the all Hitler and Jojo running with grenadeerratic energy of improv (“Come on, heil me”) in scenes so funny that they’ll take you back to the “Springtime for Hitler” sequences in Mel Brooks’ The Producers. The director gave his actors the same kind of freedom, Rockwell said, adding that he saw his camp commandant character “as Bill Murray with a German accent.” In playing the teenage girl hiding in the family’s house, Thomasin McKenzie was told to prepare by watching Heathers and Mean Girls. So yeah, that’s the tone of this very funny film about a very serious subject.

How subtle you think the film is will depend upon your ability to see allusions and connect the dots. For example, an opening visual sequence featuring a barrage of Hitler and Nazi parade and crowd images is backed by a musical soundtrack of a Beatles song—reinforcing the rock-star nature of Hitler’s rise to power, a rise that swept the German people up in Der Fuehrer’s version of Beatlemania. Emotion replaced thought, and that’s evident in a number of places throughout the film.

JoJo Rabbit is an ensemble tour de force, with all the actors finding just the right tone—even the normally over-the-top Rebel Wilson, who excels as an instructor in the Hitler Youth camp that turns up later in the film as well (“Here,” she says, handing a grenade to a young boy, pulling the pin, and telling him, “Go hug a G.I.”). Also noteworthy is the performance by young Archie Yates as Jojo’s bespectacled best friend Yorki, with both boys trying to tackle jobs that men should be doing.

Waititi, who won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay by radically altering Christine Leunens’ novel to fit his comic sensibilities, alludes to the Anne Frank diary in a clever way that’s in keeping with the humor-driven tone of the film. Yet, by film’s end you come away feeling the same emotional reaction as if you’d just watched a serious film about Nazi atrocities . . . only you also laughed your head off in the process.

Entire family: No (junior high or older)
Twentieth Century Fox
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1 widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: B+
Includes: Blu-ray, Digital Code
Trailer
Amazon link

Rated PG-13 for “mature thematic content, some disturbing images, violence, and language”

Language: 5/10—one f-bomb at the near the very end, a number of “s” words, and a few lesser swearwords, all for comic effect

Violence: 5/10—Most of what’s shown is comic, with the bulk of anything serious implied off stage; there are sequences of war violence near the end, though nothing is bloody or graphic

Sex: 0/10—Only an innocent attraction with nothing pursued

Adult situations: 6/10—the whole idea of the film weighs on your minds in the background as the humor occupies the forefront, and there is a prolonged shot of hanged bodies; also, one of the characters dies

Takeaway: Taika Waititi is living the best of two cinematic lives; with films like this he gets to explore his playful indie side, and with Thor: Ragnarok and the upcoming Thor: Love and Thunder he gets to work on blockbusters