Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival. Fox Searchlight releases the film on Friday, October 18.
“Jojo Rabbit” has the best intentions and a very confused way of showing them. Taika Waititi’s sunny fairytale focuses on ostracized Hitler Youth Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) and the buffoonish Fuhrer (Waititi in an off-kilter mustache) who serves as the boy’s imaginary friend, which is a calculated risk regardless of the execution. An upbeat challenge to the resurgence of hate groups around the world, the studio production might be the sweetest provocation in film history, and it’s certainly an ambitious juggling act worthy of admiration.
But the filmmaker’s light touch never settles in. Waititi’s ability to veer in such an audacious direction after his “Thor: Ragnarok” success catapulted him to Hollywood A-list stature coulud further cement his modern folk hero status, but for all the fragmentary pleasures of “Jojo Rabbit,” the complete picture just doesn’t sit right.
Stuffing WWII horrors into the traditional beats of a coming-of-age tale, Waititi merges the bittersweet deadpan comedies of his earlier career with the slapdash caricatures of “What We Do in the Shadows” for a riotous sendup of Nazi Germany, seen through the eyes of a child who takes its ideology for granted. Waititi’s script transforms Christine Leunens’ novel “Caging Skies” into a bizarre mishmash of cinematic ingredients: The twee of “Moonrise Kingdom” and the archetypical villains of “Inglourious Basterds” just don’t belong on the same planet; the whole thing makes “Life is Beautiful” look like “Shoah.”
Still, there’s an inherent fascination to the way Waititi dives into this daring historical fiction with reckless glee, starting with his decision to play “I Want to Hold Your Hand” over credits featuring archival of the Nazi salute. Hapless 10-year-old Jojo lives within these confines, and the petite, wannabe soldier spends much of his time gazing at the mirror while his nonexistent Hitler pal issues encouraging words from behind. Right out of the gate, the contemporary dialogue establishes a goofy undercurrent — “Man,” Hitler spouts, “you’re really the most loyal Nazi I’ve ever met!” — but Jojo’s world is tinged with melancholy all the same.
In the film’s opening act, Jojo contends with bullies at a Hitler Youth camp who mock his puniness — he can’t even kill a stupid bunny on command, hence the patronizing nickname — and even the father that abandoned him at the start of the war. One crude accident later, and Jojo’s back to brooding at home, with only his doting mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) to comfort him. Johansson’s in a class of her own here, delivering a soulful comic turn that keeps revealing new layers. (The actress looks thrilled to take a break from the Marvel routine, just like her director.) But even Jojo’s stable home life hits a snag once he makes the shocking discovery of the young Jewish woman Elsa (“Leave No Trace” breakout Thomasin McKenzie) hiding in his walls, and learns to his horror that his mother has been keeping her there.
Jojo’s abrupt moral conflict unfolds first as a mock thriller, and then a humorous two-hander. Realizing that turning the woman in would put his mother in danger, Jojo forges an odd-couple dynamic with his unexpected roommate, quizzing her on Jewish stereotypes as she spins some tall tales to pass the time. As they match wits, the scenes between the pair provide the movie with its most substantial moments. Jojo doesn’t know any better, but he’s forced to look beyond the blind hatred of his community through this pure, individual connection.
Director Waititi first cast a child actor in his debut — the remarkable 2010 crowdpleaser “Boy” — and, here, repeats the trick: Davis is a natural at conveying the uneasiness of a kid battling the complexities of the adult world, and bounces around with frantic energy that helps to stabilize the movie’s peculiar mood. McKenzie, meanwhile, follows up “Leave No Trace” with a radical swing, and exhibits a whole new level of confidence in a surprising context. Unfortunately, the rest of the ensemble goes big and broad. Sam Rockwell plays the obnoxious Captain Klenzendorf, a local Nazi overlord with a hipster smirk. Other goose-steppers at the local Nazi headquarters — played by Rebel Wilson and Stephen Merchant — never transcend even the basic zaniness of an “SNL” sketch. Jojo’s portly buddy Yorki (Archie Yates) provides some measure of comic relief, but not much depth.
As a whole, Jojo’s surroundings suffer from a lack of consistency, an intriguing gamble overwhelmed by vague doodles. Everyone adopts zany German accents, unless they choose to sound vaguely British; the Nazis harbor crude ideas about war-mongering, but their anti-Semitism has been relegated to a handful of tepid punchlines. The terrifying implications of a belief system steeped in convictions about racial purity has been reduced to background noise.
Nevertheless, “Jojo Rabbit” isn’t a misfire so much as a misconceived charmer. Waititi’s narrative instincts are too strong to bungle every aspect of this strange blend. Before he entered the blockbuster arena, he was already a master comedic storyteller capable of blending sad, wistful characters with joyful payoff. “Jojo” builds on that tradition while melding it with a zaniness that recalls his vampire satire “What We Do in the Shadows.” But vampires don’t have the same loaded connotations as a swastika, and Waititi is out of his league tackling the delicate tradition of anti-Nazi humor, which stretches all the way back to “The Great Dictator,” 80 years ago. Charlie Chaplin mocked Hitler while pitying his ambition, but “Jojo” lacks the same measured approach.
The child protagonist’s limited perspective defines the movie, and there’s a single galvanizing moment when he finally realizes the errors of his ways, but the tone never really deepens along with him. Guided by a cheerful Michael Giacchino score, “Jojo Rabbit” falls short of the subversiveness embedded in its premise by a drowning sincerity that undercuts the bleak material. It’s tough to see all that amid the storybook imagery from the great cinematographer Mihai Malaimare, Jr. (“The Master”), whose colorful palettes convey the fantastical quality of Jojo’s worldview. And Waititi’s embellishments occasionally yield flashes of dark poetry, particularly with the soundtrack: The use of “Everybody’s Gotta Live” as the Allies’ bombs rain down (not to mention a closing David Bowie number that practically breaks the fourth wall) enlivens the proceedings so well, it’s a wonder Waititi didn’t just make a musical.
Despite a few flashes of tragedy, “Jojo Rabbit” lingers in a charming muddle of good vibes without really confronting their implications. He may be one of the few working directors capable of injecting quirky scenarios with real depth, but in this case, he reduces the underlying circumstances — you know, that Holocaust thing — to a superficial prop. Waititi makes a conscious effort to obscure the ugliest elements of the scenario. The cartoon Nazis in “Jojo Rabbit” are so far removed from reality that they make it all too easy to laugh off the circumstances at hand. That’s not only crass but disingenuous, a feature-length variation of the shower-scene fake-out in “Schindler’s List.” Jews definitely perished in the gas chambers, Nazis weren’t just a bunch of dopey chumps, and Jojo’s story concludes far too easily for its own good. Yes, Waititi has made a sugary fantasy in the most unlikely places. But in the process, it buries the awful truth.
“Jojo Rabbit” premiered at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival. Fox Searchlight releases it October 18, 2019.