Jojo Rabbit, an adaptation of Christine Leunens’s book, Caging Skies, is the newest work from writer-director Taika Waititi. A toothless satire that struggles to spit venom at its totalitarian state subject, Jojo Rabbit is the first miss for Waititi.
Jojo Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis) is a fanatical 10-year-old boy living in Nazi Germany with his mother, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson), and his imaginary friend, Adolf Hitler (Waititi), while his father is away fighting for the Nazis in the war. With the German army in need of soldiers, Jojo and his friend, Yorki (Archie Yates), are sent away to Nazi boot camp under the supervision of Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell) and Fräulein Rahm (Rebel Wilson). There, Jojo is injured by a grenade he haphazardly threw, giving him a limp and scarring his face and body.
Unable to join the war effort as a solider, Jojo is tasked with running errands, retrieving donations for the war, and spreading propaganda. Rosie, meanwhile, is mysteriously gone for most of the day, leaving Jojo to explore their home and learn more about the Nazi cause. Jojo stumbles into Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), a young Jewish girl living behind a false wall in the Betzler home. Jojo, an impassioned young Nazi, is faced with the choice of turning in the girl—and his mother with her—or learning to live with her.
Jojo Rabbit, clearly Waititi’s most expensive movie outside of the megabudget Disney tentpole Thor: Ragnarok, is exquisitely lit, designed, and photographed. Jojo’s nameless German village is a fitting, war-torn setting. Two shots stand out from the pack, including the film’s climactic reveal, but, in general, Waititi puts the financial backing to good use.
After Hunt for the Wilderpeople and Thor: Ragnarok, Waititi is effortlessly recruiting the likes of Johansson and Rockwell, and the performances are impressive throughout. The three kids, Griffin Davis, Yates, and McKenzie, are talented and charismatic. Stephen Merchant, in particular, shines as a Gestapo agent named Deertz, exploiting his towering height as an off-putting, sinister force of the Nazi regime. Regrettably, Waititi’s depiction of Nazi malevolence ends there.
Waititi’s cute, silly, imaginary Hitler (an uneven stand-in for Jojo’s absent father) fizzles, warranting only a handful of laughs and taking away from the more compelling drama between Jojo and Elsa. Satire aims to undress and lampoon its subject, but the tone of Waititi’s script forces the film to stick to the absurd. Jojo Rabbit attacks the insinuation that Jews can read minds rather than the ugly, normalized Jewish stereotypes created or propagated by the Third Reich. It ignores the horrors of the Holocaust and the discriminatory “Jewish traits” that endure to this day.
This revolting period of human history is better brought to the forefront than buried, but Jojo Rabbit is too frivolous to say anything worthwhile. Centering a story around “good Nazis” implores a healthy amount of tone-deafness in 2019, embodying the “very fine people on both sides” rhetoric to a parodical degree. Jojo Rabbit comes from the same feel-good, virtue-signaling school of thought as Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri and Green Book for those eager to pat themselves on the back.