Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit (2019) has no shortage of outrageous flair, and plenty of good intentions. It’s colorful, funny, and engaging. Is it great? Well, let’s just say it’s effective. This edgy black dramedy manages to spin feel-good vibes out of grim subject matter, and while my reaction is mixed, it’s mostly positive. It’s an engaging and accomplished film with an interesting take on its familiar message.
In the dying days of World War II, 10-year-old Jojo Beltzer (Roman Griffin Davis, in a remarkable performance) is a misguided Nazi in the Hitler Youth. Jojo’s fanatic conditioning is so strong that his imaginary friend and confidante is none other than Adolf Hitler himself (Waititi, hamming it up with glee). Oh, Jojo’s not a particularly good Aryan sociopath, as his profound failures at the Hitler Youth camp attest. But he nonetheless considers himself a devoted young Nazi, determined to support Germany’s war efforts and eradicate the scourge of the Jewish race. At least, that’s the case until he realizes his upstanding German mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) has a shocking secret: she’s hiding a Jewish orphan named Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) in Jojo’s dead sister’s bedroom. Jojo’s interactions with Elsa, complicated by his relationship with Imaginary Adolf, force him to reconsider his beliefs, especially once the horrors of war really hit home.
Jojo Rabbit has audacity to spare. It’s bright, lavish, and silly even as it addresses one of the darkest periods of human history, wringing stark cognitive dissonance out of its narrative. Adding to the wacky, discordant style is anachronistic dialogue that gives jarring modern rhythms to the characters’ speech; this is particularly true in Jojo’s hallucinatory conversations with Hitler, and his comically adult-sounding interactions with his best friend Yorki (a hilarious Archie Yates). It paints a picture of the Third Reich as a laughable, over-the-top, deeply brainwashed, incompetent death cult, which is peopled by deft comic performances from Waititi, Sam Rockwell, Rebel Wilson, and Stephen Merchant, among others. Of course, jokes stop being funny when they start killing people, as the last few years of current events have made shockingly clear. This occasionally makes Jojo Rabbit’s irreverent touch, not to mention its forgiving approach to some of its Nazi characters, rather dissonant.
Ultimately, Jojo Rabbit does tactically spin away from its dismissively light tone to show the horrors of war, effectively making the film’s points. And in the end it’s a professional, polished production that never loses momentum. Its messaging isn’t pitch perfect, but its heart is in the right place.