At the beginning of Jojo Rabbit, ten-year-old Jojo Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis) stands in front of the mirror, nervous about beginning his first day at summer camp. His imaginary friend appears behind him, reassuring the boy that he is strong and smart. It would be an undeniably sweet scene, if Jojo weren’t attending a Hitler Youth camp, and his goofy imaginary friend played by writer-director Taika Waititi wasn’t the führer himself.
After helming his first studio movie with 2017’s boisterous Thor Ragnarok, Jojo Rabbit marks Waititi’s return to the indie comedy realm of his first four features. While those films capitalize on the quirkiness of simpler premises — like a documentary about modern-day vampires or a child’s misadventures in the New Zealand jungle — this is the Jewish- director’s first attempt at satirizing a broader issue. In this case, the far-right ideology that’s worming its way back into modern culture. But the result is more Moonrise Kingdom with Nazis than anything resembling the scathing “anti-hate satire” that Jojo Rabbit’s marketing promises.
In adapting Christine Leunens’ much more serious novel Caging Skies, Waititi crafts the first two-thirds of the film into a coming-of-age comedy that happens to be set in fading World War II Berlin.
Despite the fact that the war is winding down, and that he’s teased mercilessly by his peers, our young protagonist Jojo is a poster child for the Hitler Youth. He and the other children treat book burning and ambush technique practice like an elementary school field day, and given the film’s bright, Wes Anderson-esque design, it’s almost hard to blame them.
But Jojo’s comfortable worldview is thrown into disarray when he discovers Elsa (Leave No Trace’s Thomasin McKenzie), a headstrong Jewish girl that his mother (Scarlett Johansson) is hiding in their home. Stuck at home after a pipe-bomb accident that scarred his face and bogged down with the knowledge that turning her in will put his mother in danger, he’s forced to learn that the blind fanaticism he’s innocently latched onto has little substance.
“You’re not a Nazi, Jojo,” Elsa tells him at one point. “You’re a 10-year-old kid who likes dressing up in a funny uniform and wants to be part of a club.”
If anything, the film proves that Waititi has a gift for drawing great performances out of child actors — Davis carries Jojo Rabbit’s eventual hairpin shift from slapstick to drama with remarkable ease, and Archie Yates nearly steals the show as Jojo’s happy-go-lucky friend Yorki.
Where Jojo Rabbit succeeds in telling a sweet-natured story about acceptance, the film stumbles when it attempts to draw more nuanced conclusions about its unavoidably heavy subject matter.
This is far from the first instance of the “funny Hitler” trope. In reducing the mass murderer’s rhetoric to a caricature, the director is only following in the footsteps of classics like Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator and Mel Gibson’s The Producers. The key difference is that here, Waititi treats the audience like they are also children, who learn moral lessons that can be tied up rather simply when all is said and done.
Because Jojo Rabbit chooses to examine the Holocaust through sheltered, childlike eyes, the vile hatred of Nazism is reduced to cartoonish buffoonery. Waititi’s imaginary Hitler isn’t even that present in the film — after the initial shock of imagining him as a figment of a young boy’s imagination wears off, he does little that could be cut without impacting the plot.
The last act of pivots into grim realism, but from the movie’s perspective, even figures like Jojo’s Third Reich mentor Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell playing yet another racist) are eligible for redemption.
From Mihai Malaimare Jr.’s (The Master) bright cinematography to Michael Giacchino’s score, there’s a lot of technical charm to admire within Jojo Rabbit. But when a filmmaker is making light of something as complicated as Nazi Germany, a razor-sharp vision is crucial to getting a coherent, tonally appropriate message across. Unfortunately, this “anti-hate satire” has very little bite.