Taika Waititi loves a lost boy. His latest, Jojo Rabbit, is the third coming-of-age comedy the Kiwi filmmaker has crafted that centers on a young boy facing trauma by embracing fantasy. 2010’s Boy ollowed a bullied 11-year-old, who fantasizes that his absentee father isn’t the despicable criminal everyone says, but instead a mix of a noble samurai and moonwalking Michael Jackson. In 2016’s Hunt For The Wilderpeople, a “bad egg” foster kid escapes the tragic realities of his life by clinging to hip hop culture, imagining himself as a Tupac-styled gangstar. Now, in Jojo Rabbit, a 10-year-old German boy tries to make sense of World War II with the help of his imaginary friend, Adolf Hitler. While this is by far the most outlandish premise Waititi’s has tackled in his Lost Boy Trilogy, the writer/director maintains his signature sweetness and zany brand of humor, making punch lines of Nazis and an unlikely hero of another bad egg.
Based on the novel Caging Skies by Christine Leunens, Jojo Rabbit follows plucky blonde Jojo Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis) on his quest to become a good German soldier. To that end, Jojo joins the Hitler Youth, covers his room in swastikas, and howls “Heil Hitler” with the enthusiasm modern tykes might sing “Baby Shark.” Plus, he spends days and nights frolicking with his imagined version of the Nazi leader (played by a potbellied and funkily mustached Waititi). Jojo doesn’t question the party propaganda that proclaims Aryan superiority and calls for the eradication of Jews. That is until he discovers his loving mother (Scarlett Johansson) is harboring a Jewish refugee in their walls. Confused and scared, Jojo engages with 17-year-old Elsa (Leave No Trace’s Thomasin McKenzie), first with trembling threats, then earnest questions. Before long, the boy’s understanding of his nation, his mother, and his personal hero are thrown into spin.
Like the lost boys who’ve come before him, Jojo looks like a “bad boy” on paper. The kid loves Hitler, is “massively into swastikas,” and his own mother calls him as a “fanatic.” Like Waititi’s other lost boys, Jojo is seeking a father figure to lead him to manhood. With his own father MIA in the war, Jojo looks to popular culture for a role model who can guide him in how to be tough, even when he’s scared like a rabbit. But he doesn’t have samurai movies, Michael Jackson music videos, or Tupac Shakur music to influence him. Jojo has Hitler, who fearless proclamations and makes this bullied boy feel brave and special.
In this way, Waititi takes aim at bigotry, suggesting that even good-hearted people can fall prey to it because they are scared and naïve, like children. The portrayals of Nazis in the film support this criticism, as each is a variant of moron. Sam Rockwell capers as Captain Klenzendorf, the Hitler Youth leader who dreams of battleground glory and spends his free time scribbling flashier Nazi uniforms, festooned with feathers and fringe. He’s comically blasé about the politics of his party and the safety of his little troops, which leads to deadpan deliveries and an explosive plot turn. Alfie Allen joins him as a doofy aid whose misunderstanding for a request of German shepherds makes for the film’s best sight gag. Rebel Wilson pops in as a Nazi who dogmatically believes every absurd rumor about Jews, from their supposed mind-control powers to their reported habit of sleeping upside down like bats. And even Jojo’s idealized Hitler is petulant, reckless buffoon, who jumps to solutions of violence, sputters juvenile insults, and feasts on unicorn face presented on a silver platter.
All this zaniness is a wink to the audience that Waititi’s satiric ire is aimed at the idiocy of such bigotry. However, the film’s perspective is chiefly moored in Jojo’s, and he initially looks to these fools as heroes. So the early sequence of Hitler Youth camp offers joyful montages of activities, like knife throwing, gas-masked calisthenics, and book burnings, over which plays jaunty German versions of anachronistic pop music like The Monkee’s “I’m a Believer” and David Bowie’s “Heroes.” Later, when Jojo discovers Elsa, his fear is reflected in a sound design that creeps and crackles as her slim fingers clutch a doorframe like something out of a haunted house flick. And when his mother scolds him, we stay with him as she turns her back in frustration. We feel the cold of that shoulder along with him. Through this mooring, Waititi hopes to explore how we might examine our own prejudices, and question them as Jojo does.
However, for all its good intentions, Jojo Rabbit stumbles. The gracefulness with which Waititi interweaves a child-like naiveté with a sophisticated social commentary chafes when his baddie shifts from an overly dramatic social worker to a tyrant devoted to anti-Semitic genocide. The scale of this story doesn’t suit Waititi’s twee sensibilities. So, uneasiness edges in even as the audience chuckles. Nestled in a cozy German town far from the concentration camps and front lines, Jojo spends much of the movie with death as a vague concept. But as the cost of Hitler’s conquests hit home, the film’s tone shifts abruptly, pitching its kooky characters into a sterner setting, where their wackiness itches. The upside is these sequences lean into Jojo’s burgeoning bond with Elsa. And Davis and McKenzie are magic together.
Making his screen debut, Davis brings a wide-eyed innocence and a sugar-high energy to Jojo that makes him a perfect match to Waititi’s Looney Tunes version of Hitler. But McKenzie introduces an exhilarating edge as she clatters out of the crawl space and into Jojo’s life. Hiding has not made Elsa silent or fretful, but furious. Her eyes are as sharp as the tongue that threatens Jojo, lest he expose her. But as this lost boy and this angry girl collide, his energy becomes less frantic. Her eyes soften, as a mischievous grin appears. For all its satirical shenanigans and big stars, Jojo Rabbit is at its best in these moments, tense and tender, between two lonely kids trying to make sense of a world that insists they are enemies.
In the end, Jojo Rabbit is a bold gamble. Sure, Waititi relies on his standard charms: the vibrancy of his eccentric soundtracks, his skill for creating stellar ensembles, and his gift for crafting poignant yet hilarious tales of bad boys misunderstood. But making Nazis a laughing matter is something few filmmakers have pulled off. (Charlie Chaplin, Mel Brooks, Quentin Tarantino…is that it?) Whether Waititi has pulled this off will be a matter of debate for weeks and months to come, especially if his sparking script gets award season attention. Personally, I admire his ambitions, and I think a lot more of the comedy works than doesn’t. Overall, Jojo Rabbit is a satisfyingly funny journey with some terrifically moving points along the way. But it’s also a rocky one, lacking the surefootedness of Hunt For The Wilderpeople, which by my reckoning is still Waititi’s best.
Jojo Rabbit made its World Premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. Its US Premiere will follow at Fantastic Fest later this month, ahead of its theatrical release on October 18.
Kristy Puchko is Film Critic at Riot Material Magazine. Ms. Puchko (@KristyPuchko) is a New York-based film critic and entertainment journalist, her work has appeared in Vanity Fair, IndieWire, Nerdist, and Pajiba (to name a few). Ms. Puchko is a regular contributor on the Slashfilmcast, and teaches a course on film criticism at FIT. To see more of her work, visit DecadentCriminals.com