One word comes to mind when looking at the central conceit of Jojo Rabbit, a film centered around a young German boy living through the tail-end of WWII, with an imaginary friend in the form of Adolf Hitler: questionable. It’s only when you look at who the mastermind is behind the film, writer/director Taika Waititi, that it starts to become clear how this undoubtedly touchy subject matter will be handled.
The director behind indie comedy gems What We Do in the Shadows and Hunt for the Wilderpeople (and the wonderfully weird Thor: Ragnarok) brings his signature offbeat comedic sensibility to this new “anti-hate satire,” while also stretching himself quite a bit in the dramatic department. And if perhaps the film plays things a little too safe, Jojo Rabbit still packs the intermittent emotional punch and mostly succeeds at being crowd-pleasing entertainment, against all the questionable contextual odds stacked against it.
Roman Griffin Davis stars as the titular Jojo, who lives in Germany with his single mother, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson). Blindly patriotic, Jojo turns to the help of his imaginary friend, Adolf Hitler (played by Waititi himself), to succeed at being the best German boy soldier. He attends a Hitler youth training camp, led by Captain Klezendorf (Sam Rockwell), where he’s given the nickname Jojo Rabbit for his unwillingness to kill a rabbit on command.
The ability for compassion and love is within Jojo. And with the help of Elsa, a Jewish girl whom Rosie is hiding in their home (Thomasin Mackenzie, who was amazing in last year’s Leave No Trace), Jojo learns to confront and reject the hatred inherent within his blind nationalism.
Jojo Rabbit rides a very treacherous line between satirizing the hatred of the Nazi regime and portraying the harsh realities of such hate. It requires a certain tonal balance to be able to pull this concept off. And Waititi’s depiction of all Nazi leaders as complete imbeciles gives him a certain freedom that’s needed to make the black comedy possible, but that also makes for some jokes that feel simplistic and easy.
Rockwell has a bit of complexity to his character, but Rebel Wilson’s Frau is practically a cartoon. And while it makes sense for a children’s imagination of what Hitler to also be childish, Waititi’s Hitler is a bit too broad to have an incisive satirical edge.
Still, Waititi’s comedic timing as a writer and director is as reliable as it has been in his previous efforts, and there are some very funny moments sprinkled throughout Jojo Rabbit (a Stephen Merchant cameo that involves a LOT of “heil Hitler”-ing, for example). But the humor, on the whole, isn’t as bold as its audacious premise would have you believe.
Where Jojo Rabbit really works is in the warmth it exudes in the relationships between Jojo, Rosie, and Elsa, all of whom are played so very well by their respective actors. Mackenzie and Johansson both give incredibly tender performances, working together to give the film its big, beating heart. And Davis plays Jojo brilliantly, ably handling the tonal juggling act of the film and confidently carrying us through his journey to rejecting hate. The scenes between any combination of these three are very effective, and Waititi gives them dialogue that communicates his themes ways that are powerfully succinct.
Some moments also hit much harder without the use of any dialogue. There is a specific visual reveal in the latter half of Jojo Rabbit that is so deftly handled and completely emotionally blindsiding. It’s heavy dramatic beats like these that are unexpected and refreshing coming from Waititi, a filmmaker whose already proven himself with his unique brand of offbeat comedy. It shows us a filmmaker who’s pushing and challenging themselves, and the fact that Jojo Rabbit works as well as it does is a true testament to Waititi’s talent.
The use of color is considerably different than the typical WWII-era film, with a lot of warm green and bright turquoise coloring the production design and locations, lending to the tone that the film sets out to achieve. The eclectic soundtrack includes German covers of “I’m a Believer” and “Heroes,” adding to its charm. And Michael Giacchino’s score, while not particularly memorable, has a twee charm all its own.
With a note-perfect ending that is sure to have audiences leaving the theater with a smile, Jojo Rabbit goes out fulfilling its good intentions. It’s a film that is both amusing and poignant, even if it proves a bit too slight and simplistic in its humor to have an impact as strong as its lofty ambitions. All the same, there are scenes and moments that are among my favorites in any movie this year. For a film that’s this daring in its goals to be as good as it is must be commended, and it’s something you should see and support.
Jojo Rabbit is in select theaters now and will open wider this weekend.
All images courtesy of Fox Searchlight.
- Taika Waititi's ability to balance diffferent tones and pull off some very effective dramatic beats
- Davis, Mackenzie, and Johansson's three central performances
- That ending!
- Comedy is too simplistic to give the satire its edge