Jojo Rabbit has come branded as a satire on hate and presents easy targets for the audience. In terms of staging an absurd and over-the-top Nazi-occupied Germany, Taika Waititi’s (Thor: Ragnarok) comedy goes forth with the goofy guts to transforms Nazis into dorks. They spin strange tales of Jews, teach kids how to shoot guns, and have wild illusions about their war in its twilight stage. Though funny, this one-note humor wears out its welcome and there’s thankfully more to this picture than a handful of jokes about Nazis.
His Pal Hitler
We’re presented a World War II Germany through the eyes of 10-year-old Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis). He’s a boy indoctrinated and imaginative enough to whip an imaginary Hitler. His Hitler pal, played by Taika Waititi, is the charming kind of inspiration only a kid could dream up. Acting like a cartoonish blend of a coach and Captain Kangaroo, Hitler tells wild tales of the Jews and keeps the mischievousness rumbling in the kid.
Jojo is hoping this Nazi spirit will carry into his training at his summer Nazi camps. The camp activities include grenade practice, knife throwing, gun firing, and generally forming all sorts of wicked lies about the Jews. It would seem shocking if not for the giddy Wes Anderson style soundtrack choices. There are goofy counselors played by the likes of Rebel Wilson, Alfie Allen, and Sam Rockwell. Jojo is clearly not cut out for this kind of camp as a few tethers of his morality remain.
When Jojo Meets Jew
Despite an afterschool conversation of Jojo and imaginary Hitler, Jojo still finds himself desperate to serve the cause in some way. It’s when he discovers the hidden Jewish girl, Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), he finds himself perplexed and intrigued. She’s a Jew and yet all the stories he’d heard tell of at camp don’t seem to be holding water. He can’t defeat her and even his kooky Hitler companion is frightened. He must find out why and begins questioning the girl, slowly falling for her allure.
It is here where the film finds its true heart and becomes more than just easy Nazi jokes. Most of the film takes place inside Jojo’s warm home as his understanding yet skeptical mother (Scarlett Johansson) keeps the love flowing during a time of hate. Even during dark times of hangings in the street and hatred swirling throughout the town, she keeps her home free of politics. Dinners narrowly avoid talk of Nazis and instead turn into cute dance parties. Outside, however, is another story.
Dark With Heart
The film walks a weird line of balancing the dark humor with the sweet childhood romance. The threat of Nazis is presented as real but with a wink in between the ugliness. A perfect example of this is during a scene where a Nazi Gestapo, headed by a towering Stephen Merchant, infiltrates Jojo’s home. The Nazis make light of their searches and get giddy when stumbling into Jojo’s bedroom of propaganda posters. When they get a whiff of a Jew in the house, however, the tension becomes real. The consequences are the most real with following tragic developments.
What’s most remarkable about such a film is how it somehow balances these tough emotions. Just when it seems like the Nazi jokes about their understandings of Jews are growing thin, we go back to the heartfelt growth between Jojo and Elsa. Just when the mushiness of Jojo connecting with his mother starts to sag, we’re back to a jab at hate. Even the inclusion of fantasy Hitler seems to be used in just the right amount, never outstaying his welcome. Worth noting is how even in Jojo’s imagination he can see the hypocrisy when Jojo has a meager meal while Hitler dines on a cooked unicorn.
While much of the film falls back on easy laughs and tears, there’s an enduring nature to Jojo Rabbit. Never quite finding the big bite of Nazi satire or the sweet spot of childhood romance. There’s an oddly poignant way the film goes about weaving its comedy. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of such a picture is its focus on imagination. Those who think bigger than what is in front of them genuinely come off as better people in the picture. This includes those who follow the Nazis with a certain skepticism. Taika Waititi is certainly one of those creatives. He has an imagination wild enough to conceive of such a strange and weirdly warming film.
The coming-of-age drama is more powerful than the simplistic Nazi goofing.
- Strong coming-of-age drama
- Some sly dark comedy
- Taika Waititi playing a silly Hitler
- Nazi comedy lacking in bite
- Offbeat style not always effective