New Zealand filmmaker Taika Waititi is a bold stylist who aims to find comedy in unusual places. His film “What We Do in The Shadows” brought the absurd out of the notion of a vampire reality show, and of course his breakout success with Marvel’s “Thor: Ragnarök” breathed new life into the tired mythology of its predecessors. “Jojo Rabbit” might be his boldest experiment yet: a coming of age comedy about a German boy enlisted in Hitler’s Youth, who imagines himself taking advice from a comic portrayal of Adolph Hitler as his imaginary friend — played by the director himself.
Roman Griffin Davis stars as the young Nazi Jojo, an imaginative Arian pre-teen who loves his mom (Scarlett Johansson) and hopes to one day fight for the Third Reich. Jojo’s dreams are dashed when an accident in the Nazi Youth training camp leaves the boy crippled. His down-on-his-luck superior and leader Capt. Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell) gives the boy the menial task of hanging propaganda around town. The story complicates and the moral center becomes clearer when Jojo finds a young Jewish girl (Thomasin McKenzie) hiding in the walls of his sister’s old room. This discovery reveals his mother as a revolutionary secretly working against the German regime. The new information leaves little Jojo conflicted, leading the boy to interview the refugee to find more information about the mythologized version of Jews he’s learned about through Nazi brainwashing.
Tonally, this is a tricky picture. The comedy is broad, often dry, and sometimes recalls the flippant archness of Wes Anderson or even the whimsical comic strips of “Calvin and Hobbs.” But just underneath every jokey set-piece and every visual gag is a torrent of genuine sentimentality and tenderness for its characters and a tough acknowledgment of the tragedy of the Holocaust. It’s purely intentional and significant that we experience this story through the final days of the Nazi government at the end of World War II.
Jojo’s ideology breaks down with new information acquired by his reluctant friendship with a Jew, and the city he lives in and the party he once worshiped crumbles in the background of the story.
The satire here is so committed and so heightened that it can sometimes be hard to let the comedy naturally fall into place, but once the film reveals its heart I was moved and touched by what ends up being an unlikely feel-good movie. If you accept the eccentricity of this experience, you’re likely to find a deeply affecting analogy about how pervasive propaganda can be and how fascism takes hold by appealing to our base notions of hierarchical tribalism.
“Jojo Rabbit” is simultaneously both a crowd-pleaser and a risky film. Every scene is deeply considerate of moving the story along, striking visual coherency and sharp satirical subtext. All the performances are perfectly tuned to the tightrope tonal shifts, and Waititi shows his willingness to explore the depth and emotional resonance within his usual brand of smart-alecky whit.
Cassidy Robinson is a former Idaho State University student with a master’s degree in film studies from Orange County’s Chapman University. He is currently working as a media journalist in Los Angeles, California.