Ten-year-old Jojo is excited. He's heading off to camp for healthy fun and games in the idyllic outdoors, and he's determined not to worry about being skinny and having no friends. Luckily, there is one voice cheering him on: his sprightly imaginary friend, Adolf Hitler.
Yeah, this is a tricky one. Lampooning the Nazis is a risky proposition, requiring a knife-edge balance between humor and horror. If anyone can pull it off, it's Taika Waititi, who also dons a silly mustache to play the fictitious Fuehrer in new film Jojo Rabbit, which opens in the US on Friday and in the UK in January 2020.writer and director
Adapting the novel Caging Skies by Christine Leunens, Waititi crafts a sweet, charming and often hilarious comedy. But once you leave the theater and the chuckles subside, you might wonder if sweetness and charm are the weapons with which to tackle such extremes of racism and hatred.
People have made fun of Hitler from the moment he appeared, something Jojo Rabbit reminds us with a reference to the famous song questioning what's in the dictator's underwear. And it's worth mentioning that Waititi isn't playing the real thing, but a kid's idea of the Nazi leader. He's really just a familiar face giving voice to a child's doubts and insecurities, complete with petulant tantrums and childish turns of phrase. Waititi's natural charm make the gag work, and it doesn't outstay its welcome: The film isn't really about a kid hanging out with Hitler.
Instead, Jojo Rabbit is a coming-of-age story for young Jojo who swaps a missing father for the fatherland. He's determined to be a good little fascist, but his convictions are shaken when he encounters the subject of his hatred.
Waititi delivers Jojo Rabbit before his second Marvel movie, . Like Marvel itself, Jojo Rabbit is now the property of Disney since . Another Marvel connection is Black Widow star Scarlett Johansson, delivering one of her best performances in ages as Jojo's mother.
The adults include Sam Rockwell playing a jaded soldier and Rebel Wilson as a farcial fraulein, teaching the kids in their charge how to, well, charge. The kids burn books and practice grenade drills for the day they come face-to-face with the fatherland's rapidly encroaching enemies.
The adults around them have a blind commitment to their own ludicrousness that's reminiscent of the dim and deluded vampires in Waititi's comedy What We Do in the Shadows, adopting rituals and costumes and a general sense of their own superiority without realizing how absurd they are.
In his film debut, Roman Griffin Davis is a delight as young Jojo. Jojo's other secret friend is played by Thomasin McKenzie, who engagingly recalls the unbowed Shosanna in Inglourious Basterds. It's basically The Boy in the Striped Pajamas played for laughs, while the quirky focus on the burgeoning relationship between the two kids makes it feel like Moonrise Kingdom with swastikas. Jojo Rabbit certainly looks like a Wes Anderson picture, the touching tale unfolding in a picturesque town of soft pinks and yellows.
But it's not all sunshine and pastoral pastels. The postcard prettiness of the setting contrasts with the ugliness of the time, and there are some devastating moments as this warped society's implicit violence casually unfolds.
Jojo Rabbit gently offers a hopeful message -- if we think for ourselves, we can avoid the herd mentality of extremism. But the fairytale stylings sit uncomfortably with the setting. Over the opening credits, anachronistic music suggests the mass hysteria of Nazism was akin to the frenzy over rock stars. Yet the Third Reich was more than just people getting swept up in a spectacle and wigging out to some new sounds. Fascist ideology taps into a deeper vein of human immorality.
The film paints anti-Semitism as comically absurd -- which is true -- but shies away from the very real hatred beneath. So just as JoJo learns Jews are people too, the film's point of view suggests the same about Nazis. Everybody who embraces the fascist regime is presented as a figure of fun, giving the impression every Nazi was just going along with the crowd. This lets off the hook those who wholeheartedly embrace hatred -- not to mention the many others who shut their eyes to the horror, or those who cynically take advantage. Jojo Rabbit doesn't indict instigators of hatred, nor those who empower hate-filled demagogues through complacency and opportunism.
Maybe that's too much to ask from a coming-of-age comedy designed to appeal to a wide audience. JoJo Rabbit's satire is certainly nowhere near as scathing other movies attacking a similar theme, like the horrifyingly brutal true stories The Captain or Europa Europa. But if a coming-of-age comedy isn't the place to tackle Nazi Germany, maybe Nazi Germany isn't the place for a coming-of-age comedy.
Originally published Oct. 6.
Updated Oct. 17: Adds US and UK release dates and some background information.