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What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Jojo Rabbit is a satiric comedy from director Taika Waititi about a young boy in Nazi Germany who discovers that his beloved mother is hiding a teenaged Jewish girl. Though many parts of the movie are light and funny, others are deadly serious, with mature subject matter and violence that's disturbing, even if it's not especially gory. There are maimed soldiers, dead bodies, children carrying (and using) machine guns, and the hanging bodies of people executed by Nazis. One sympathetic character is killed suddenly and tragically, altering the tone of the movie. Children are orphaned and in frequent danger. An animal is killed on-screen (a boy twists a rabbit's neck around, then throws the limp body into the woods). Cursing isn't frequent but includes "s--t," "hell," "damn," and one "f--k off." There's also lots of upsetting hate speech about Jewish people and other enemies of the Nazi regime, but the movie's sympathies are clearly with the downtrodden. A boy's imaginary friend is Adolf Hitler, who's depicted as largely supportive and kind, if also a hateful fascist. Characters drink and get variously sloppy or elated, and many smoke cigarettes. The movie offers a nuanced take on a subject that's very difficult to mine humor from: Some people may be offended by its very concept, but it's more thoughtful and funnier than families might expect. Still, it's one that you'll want to talk about afterward.
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What's the story?
When lonely 10-year-old German boy Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) messes up his first assignment at a weekend Hitler Youth camp, his fellow campers give him a cruel nickname: JOJO RABBIT. Things are difficult at home, too, particularly when he discovers that his mother, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson), has been hiding a Jewish girl, Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), from the Gestapo. No wonder Jojo retreats from reality in conversations with his imaginary friend, Adolf Hitler (Taika Waititi). As Jojo confronts the gap between his nationalistic ideals and gritty reality, something's got to give. Will it be Jojo?
Is it any good?
Most viewers will agree that Nazis aren't funny, but Waititi's comic voice is so ridiculously lovable that, against all odds, this singular movie somehow is -- at least fitfully. At other moments, Jojo Rabbit whipsaws so quickly between light satire and the heaviest tragedy that the uneven tone is bewildering. But before you get there, there's a long, sweet stretch in which viewers get to know the hapless Jojo, who's sympathetically played by the excellent Davis. It's easy to see why a fatherless, lonely, picked-on kid is delighted to put on a uniform and be part of a club that's all the rage among the boys in his town. And it's equally easy to understand why his imaginary friend takes the form of the almighty (to Jojo) Hitler. Even better, Jojo's imagined Hitler doesn't rant and bluster like the real man; instead, he shores up Jojo's confidence with assurances that he's good enough, smart enough, and, gosh darn it, people like him. Except, in real life, mostly they don't, and Jojo is left alone at home to make a dangerous discovery.
At that point, the movie basically splits into two parts: At home, Jojo's stern prejudices around the Fatherland's sworn nemeses begin to splinter as he gets to know one particular hated enemy. Everywhere else, he keeps up the front of a loyal Hitler Youth corps member. There's plenty of comic gold in the latter: Sam Rockwell's profane Captain Klenzendorf has a Captain Jack Sparrow vibe that's a kick, Rebel Wilson is reliably hilarious as a fervently pious woman in uniform, and viewers quickly learn to sit up and pay attention anytime Jojo's pricelessly endearing sole friend, Yorki (Archie Yates), appears on-screen. But then a devastating event brings all the funny to a screeching halt, and we're left with Jojo, picking up the pieces at the end and wondering, despite the relatively cheerful closing scene, what on Earth did we just watch? Perhaps this, too, was part of Waititi's grand plan, to loosen viewers up with humor before delivering a walloping gut punch of seriousness. But if it sends viewers out of the theater with wrinkled-up "Huh?" faces, it will hardly be a surprise. At moments, this movie is good, even great. But it's hard to know what Waititi was going for, or even how to feel about what you've just seen. Jojo Rabbit is a good time, until it isn't.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the time period in which Jojo Rabbit is set. Do Jojo's feelings toward Jewish people and other "enemies" of the Third Reich seem authentic for a boy growing up in that time and place? Are the things he says and feels offensive to you? Does that detract from the humor? Why or why not?
What other stories, TV shows, or movies have you read, heard, or watched about World War II? How many of these stories were told from the point of view of German people who adhered to the Nazi party? Why do you think that point of view is relatively rare, at least for those consuming media in America? Is it difficult to sympathize with? Why? Would it be harder to sympathize if Jojo were an adult?
How do Jojo, Rosie, and Elsa demonstrate courage and empathy? Why are these important character strengths? Do any other characters in this movie show these qualities? What about Captain Klenzendorf? In what ways is this complicated character courageous and empathetic? In what ways is he reprehensible?
- In theaters: October 18, 2019
- On DVD or streaming: February 18, 2020
- Cast: Taika Waititi, Sam Rockwell, Scarlett Johansson, Rebel Wilson, Roman Griffin Davis
- Director: Taika Waititi
- Studio: Fox Searchlight
- Genre: Comedy
- Topics: History
- Character strengths: Compassion, Courage, Empathy
- Run time: 108 minutes
- MPAA rating: PG-13
- MPAA explanation: mature thematic content, some disturbing images, violence, and language
- Awards/Honors: Academy Award, BAFTA
- Last updated: February 18, 2020
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