Taika Waititi just might be our most interesting filmmaker. After a string of tremendous, hilarious low-budget comedies set in New Zealand, he also proved master of the modern blockbuster, delivering the uproariously fun Thor: Ragnarok. Now he’s following that gem with the type of oddity you can only expect from a filmmaker as singular as Waititi: Jojo Rabbit, a comedy about a child Nazi during World War II and his imaginary friend, Adolf Hitler. Although it was billed as an “anti-hate satire,” everything about the project seemed potentially ill-advised, and ignited something of a moral panic among those afraid it might paint Nazis as sympathetic.
It seems like the internet has been arguing for months about the virtue of making a comedy about some of history’s worst villains, turning the trailers for Waititi’s bold, weird satire into a battleground. In light of all of that, it’s sort of disappointing that Jojo Rabbit doesn’t really live up to the filmmaker’s eccentricities or the public debate, landing closer to a familiar holocaust film than the epic, Blazing Saddles-esque mockery it’s made out to be. While certainly well-made and frequently humorous, it’s disappointing that Jojo Rabbit seems to lack serious bite.
Roman Griffin Davis stars as Jojo, a boy in Nazi Germany who obsessively supports the war effort. The child actor is a terrific discovery, imbuing his character with a clear sense of loyalty and devotion that we’ve certainly all had at one point, and he’s able to make it relatable, even if his obsession is abhorrent. It seems supporting the Nazis is all Jojo can think about, to the degree that even his imaginary friend is an encouraging vision of Adolf Hitler. The film's first act basically just follows Jojo’s mostly happy childhood in his hometown and at a Hitler Youth camp, using Waititi’s trademark style to relentlessly skewer the inherent stupidity that comes with being a Nazi. Led by Sam Rockwell as a Nazi general, assisted by Alfie Allen and Rebel Wilson, the camp is poorly organized, poorly run, and exists solely to ensure the children are indoctrinated early. Rockwell’s character clearly has no interest in the exercise, making for a fun bit of satire.
The first t30 minutes or so of Jojo Rabbit continue this trend, adopting a lighthearted coming-of-age tone punctuated with moments like when a poor kid throwing a knife at a tree that rebounds and hits him. Even Jojo hilariously injures himself after becoming desperate to prove he’s a cold-blooded warrior when he failed to muster the courage to kill a rabbit. In between these bits, Waititi appears as Hitler to encourage Jojo, and he’s an even funnier caricature, consistently offering cigarettes and terrible advice.
In a lot of ways, the first half-hour of Jojo Rabbit is what the film was sold as, and what it should have been. It’s a hilarious, furious film about a broken society that deems itself the most superior in history, and all of the contradictions therein. Just as one character brags about the perfection of the Aryan race, Waititi shows their weakness. It’s not a perfect bit of satire, and treats the Nazis as so incompetent they almost come off as harmless goons. It’s never a bad time to watch such a talented comedic filmmaker portray villainous characters as farcical, but the story comes off as a little whitewashed. Instead of dealing with the harsh contrast of the Nazis’ humorous failures against their insatiable hate, it only deals with the fallout of their actions. The decision feels calculated, as if Waititi wanted to keep even the satirical moments of the film from making audiences too uncomfortable. Nevertheless, it’s still the best (and funniest) stretch of the film, clearly driving home the point through inventive visual and verbal bits of comedy.
Unfortunately, as the story progresses it begins to lose the plot, abandoning the all-out satire for beats pulled from a more conventional film about the holocaust and World War II. Jojo’s entire world changes when he discovers that his beloved mother (Scarlett Johansson) is hiding a Jewish girl (Thomasin McKenzie) in their home. Although the performances from the pair of women are absolute powerhouses, the entire movie takes a 90-degree turn from farce to something that more resembles a tragicomedy. There’s nothing exactly wrong with taking this tone to tell a story about one of the greatest tragedies of all time, but it’s disappointing once you get a taste of the bold, dark comedy it could’ve been. It’s especially jarring when Waititi pops back in as his bumbling interpretation of Hitler. In the midst of horrible, oppressive pain, it begins to feel like Jojo’s imaginary friend (which was the movie’s selling point) is tacked on to the story. Although the fake Hitler is something of a ham-fisted allegory for the standards of the society around him, it’s wasted in such a confused story.
As Jojo investigates and gets to know the girl hiding in his home, the little Nazi predictably starts to open up and becomes her friend. It would be a particularly moving story if it didn’t feel like it had been told dozens of times across the years. Like The Boy in the Striped Pajamas or even The Book Thief before it, Jojo Rabbit is never remotely a bad movie, but it’s sadly just conventional. The larger narrative plot beats and even the small ways that Waititi frames the surrounding tragedy are overly familiar, and drastically hamper the film’s larger ambitions.
On top of this, the way that the film treats its many Nazi characters is a bit ethically muddled. Hitler, obviously, is a bumbling buffoon, and an SS Captain played by Stephen Merchant is clearly villainous, but it doesn’t seem to know how to treat the rest of the characters. Once again, Sam Rockwell plays an oddly empathetic racist character, and it’s hard to know what to make of that. On one hand, failing to grapple with Nazis as actual humans instead of historical villains leaves history doomed to repeat itself, but it also seems poorly conceived to paint an actual Nazi general as heroic without questioning how he ended up there in the first place. Maybe this is digging too deep into the film’s characters, but it’s a very odd choice to drop a sympathetic Nazi into the middle of a film billed as an “anti-hate satire.”
When it was first announced, it was hard to imagine what a Taiki Waititi holocaust comedy might look like. It clearly would have to walk a tight line to land on the other side of offensive but still be an impactful, angry satire. Thankfully, Jojo Rabbit never comes close to covering its subject matter so carelessly that it comes off as offensive, but it swings too far in the other direction. The film largely works, and is full of engaging characters and engrossing performances, but it lacks the sharpness and wit of the best satires. With such potential behind and on camera, it’s hard not to be disappointed, but at the very least, Taiki Waititi has found a way to make a fun, hilarious movie about Nazi Germany, and that’s got to count for something.
Written and directed by Taika Waititi, Jojo Rabbit stars Roman Griffin Davis as Jojo Betzler, Thomasin McKenzie as Elsa Korr, Taika Waititi as Adolf Hitler, Rebel Wilson as Fraulein Rahm, Stephen Merchant as Captain Deertz, Alfie Allen as Finkel, Sam Rockwell as Captain Klenzendorf and Scarlett Johansson Rosie Betzler. The film arrives in theaters Oct. 18.