Taika Waititi, director of modest comedies and the mega-budget blockbuster Thor: Ragnarok, digs for laughs and hope in Nazi-era Germany in his latest movie. Jojo Rabbit presents a knew-high view of fascism through the adventures of a 10-year-old boy who is a member of the German children’s wing and has Adolf Hitler for an imaginary friend.
Waititi’s screenplay is based on the novel Caging Skies by Christine Nuenes. Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) wants very hard to serve his country and be an outstanding example of the Aryan race. As a member of Hitler Youth, Jojo gets all the encouragement he needs from his mentors (“Now get your sinks together, kids, it’s time to burn some books!”)
Jojo’s resolve is only strengthened when he is dismissed as a sissy for refusing to kill a rabbit. His real test comes when he finds out that his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) has hidden a Jewish girl, Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), in their home. Jojo has only contempt for the Jews – they “smell like Brussel sprouts”, among other things – and he demands that Elsa explain herself. Hitler (Taika Waititi) pops up from time to time to give Jojo advice, solace and, when push comes to shove, encouragement to get Elsa out of the way.
Is a train waiting to take Elsa to a place from where she may never return? Waititi’s politically incorrect comedy pushes various buttons hard, but the horrors of the Holocaust remain as hidden from Jojo as Elsa is from the outside world. The movie is bold enough to mine humour from one of the darkest chapters in human history, but the mass extermination of the Jews and other minorities proves too much to handle.
It’s always amusing but not deadly funny when it needs to be, and never so offensive as to be truly outrageous. In a movie filled with nibbles rather than big bites, Hitler is a buffoon, the stormtroopers (played by Sam Rockwell, Alfie Allen and Rebel Wilson) bumble and stumble about, and Scarlett Johansson’s Rosie radiates optimism even as she secretly prays for the Nazis to be defeated. Jojo’s encounters with Elsa as he attempts to understand Jews better have a cartoonish quality, and when he has his first real encounter with the true meaning of Nazism, the moment passes quickly.
The anachronistic soundtrack, reminiscent of the similarly twee films of Wes Anderson, includes The Beatles’s German version of I Wanna Hold Your Hand. The accents (British for Jojo, American for Rosie, movie-German for the rest) are as scattershot as the satire, but the film scores in its depiction of the relationships formed between people beyond their beliefs. The mother-son bond is movingly portrayed, Rockwell is lovely in a small but significant role, and Jojo’s dance with the girl concealed behind the wallpaper is straight out of an old-fashioned romance. Cuteness also abounds whenever Jojo’s portly and bespectacled friend, Yorki (Archie Yates) is around.
Waititi’s deft handling of his estimable cast is most apparent in the indelible performance of Roman Griffin Davis as Jojo. Griffin Davis’s astonishing portrayal of the confused but preternaturally wise Jojo ricochets long after the sounds of the anti-Jewish jokes and stereotyped accents have faded. His scenes with Waititi, who is hilarious as the oafish Hitler, have a grown-up quality that the movie occasionally lacks.