Described as “an anti-hate satire,” “Jojo Rabbit” seeks to strike a delicate balance in using a Hitler-obsessed boy — during Nazi Germany’s final throes — to convey that message. The result is an awkward, uneven film, with writer-director Taika Waititi conjuring some touching moments, but unable to pull off the magic act this “Rabbit” trick requires.
Beyond adapting Christine Leunens’ book, Waititi (an indie darling whose studio credentials include “Thor: Ragnarok”) also plays the role of Adolf Hitler, the slightly funky imaginary friend of 10-year-old Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis), who wants nothing more than to be a good Hitler youth.
Jojo’s redeemable nature is evident early on, when he balks at killing a rabbit during the Nazi youth camp he’s attending, earning himself that unfortunate nickname. “You are not one of them,” he’s told.
Still, his worldview and preconceived notions are really challenged when he discovers that his single mom (Scarlett Johansson) is sheltering a young Jewish girl (Thomasin McKenzie) in their attic.
The not-so-subtle message is that Jojo’s prejudice and hatred begins to erode as he’s exposed to a representative of the very group that he casually demonized. Meanwhile, Hitler keeps appearing to him, with Waititi vamping it up in an anachronistic way (“That was intense!” he gushes) clearly designed to hold Hitler up as an object of ridicule.
The problem with frittering around within this period of history is the risk of appearing to oversimplify it at best, and at worst, trivialize it. While “Jojo Rabbit” offers a sense of the horrors that the Nazis inflicted, the fairy-tale-like trappings and fantasy element can’t help but round and soften those edges, at times uncomfortably so.
Waititi clearly anticipated those concerns and potential for controversy, and has addressed them fairly eloquently in the movie’s production notes as well as interviews. That includes calling attention to the film’s call for tolerance, and the need to “keep finding new and inventive ways of telling the horrific story of World War II again and again for new generations.”
Still, the cheeky tone can’t help but undermine what the movie tries to achieve. And while Jojo’s growth offers hope — augmented by moments of sweetness — there’s a little too much “Hogan’s Heroes” surrounding the comical Nazis within his orbit, played by Sam Rockwell, Rebel Wilson and Stephen Merchant, among others.
“Jojo Rabbit” won an audience award at the Toronto Film Festival, and it’s hard not to admire Waititi’s ambition in undertaking such an exercise.
From that perspective, the director has delivered a rebuke to hatred — just not a fully realized or satisfying movie, but rather more of an odd duck.
“Jojo Rabbit” premieres Oct. 18 in select theaters in the US. It’s rated PG-13.