Director Taika Waititi (What We Do in the Shadows, Thor: Ragnarok) works both in front of and behind the camera here, portraying a cartoonish version of the Fuhrer himself, the imaginary friend of a young boy in Hitler’s army named Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis). Based on the Christine Leunens novel “Caging Skies” and set near the end of WWII, Jojo Rabbit is a satirical, sometimes heartfelt film that sees the world through the eyes of this boy, who attends Hitler Youth camp but is often mocked for his small stature and his compassion. Early on, when he can’t bring himself to kill a rabbit during training, the Nazis do it for him, hence the title.
While recovering from an encounter with a grenade that left his face scarred, one day Jojo makes a shocking discovery: his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson, Her, The Avengers) has been hiding a young Jewish girl named Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie, The King) in the attic! It goes against everything he’s been taught, but if he tells anyone, the girl, his mother, and him will all be in trouble! Much to the chagrin of his imaginary friend, Jojo reluctantly and cautiously learns more about this person he’s been taught is a monster. The more time they spend together, he slowly begins to wonder, Is she really so horrible after all?
The performances here across the table are wonderful. Johansson gives yet another Oscar-worthy performance, but McKenzie is one of the most impressive, as she is outstanding. Davis is a fantastic child actor, especially in this role. Sam Rockwell (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) plays a closeted gay German Captain, and he’s very entertaining to watch. Stephen Merchant (Logan) even shows up in an intimidating–if brief–role. Obviously, it’s impossible to talk about this film without mentioning Waititi’s over-the-top Hitler, which works well not only on a comedic level but from a storytelling perspective. (Quentin Tarantino’s cartoonish portrayal of the villain in Inglorious Basterds may come to mind, but this is a very different film, so it’s hard to say.)
The humor, for the most part, works well–as do the more dramatic moments. Unfortunately, the tone does not always work when it’s juggling these two elements. This is, after all, a film set during WWII, and as such we get some inevitable scenes of loss and brainwashed boys running through the streets fighting. The problem is that when Jojo Rabbit deals with these mature themes, it’s practically begging for more exploration. Instead, the filmmakers seem intent on reigning it in so that they can appeal to a broader audience. It doesn’t have to be rated R, but a few scenes–especially in the final act–would’ve benefitted from showing more.
Perhaps the best–and worst–thing about this director is his comedic approach to his films. They can be hilarious, but when one is telling a dramatic story, the more serious moments that need to be addressed are simply undercut with goofiness. While Waititi’s latest effort has this same problem, it is by no means a failure–far from it, in fact. Although the subject matter may seem uncomfortable, giving us the perspective of a 10-year-old boy raised to be a fanatic in Hitler’s army is perfect. It also boasts great performances, lots of humor, heart, and surprising character arcs that make your two hours worth the investment. Despite a few missteps, this film is still worth catching, if you can.
**1/2 out of four