In Jojo Rabbit, a boy gives himself a pep talk in front of the mirror, preparing himself for a new day. Socks pulled up, belt tightened, check. This boy is going to be the greatest little fascist Der Führer has ever seen, and before he heads out to face a war-torn world, his imaginary friend pops into frame to give his approval. This illusory companion just so happens to be Hitler, albeit a distinctly non-Aryan representation of Hitler—he looks … Maori/Jewish?
Yes, Jojo Rabbit is that age-old Nazi comedy you’ve heard about in which Taika Waititi plays Hitler. If there were ever a time to be reminded that Nazis are bad, 2019 is probably the best moment to do it. Waititi, director of Thor: Ragnarok, valiantly attempts to take the far-right down a peg by making a mockery of the indoctrinated, and at first glance, Jojo Rabbit looks like a risky venture. But Waititi defies all expectations by making a Nazi comedy that oddly feels a hair too safe. It’s a featherlight poke at ignorance, one that’s more eager to earn tears than laughs.
That aforementioned budding German soldier is Jojo, a devoted 10-year-old member of the Hitler Youth. Waititi swiftly establishes his gullibility in the opening credits, equating Nazi fanaticism with Beatlemania as old newsreel footage of devout fascists plays set to a German rendition of “I Want To Hold Your Hand.” The message is clear: Jojo is just a deluded fan who only wants to be noticed by his idol. With Hitler by his side giving him dubious advice, he heads to a boot camp for kids to learn the essential skills like throwing knives and grenades, while the girls “learn how to get pregnant.” It’s so abundantly twee that the film feels more like a fascist Moonrise Kingdom; if anything, Waititi makes things look too enjoyable. A bright color palette and elegant production design reflect the perspective of a child who lives blind to the injustices around him, but every scene and joke leaves a sugary-sweet aftertaste that shouldn’t exist.
Young Jojo earns his titular nickname when he refuses to snap the neck of a bunny, clueing us in that this child might not be the ruthless fascist he aspires to be. His limits are further tested when he discovers that his mother (Scarlett Johansson, a warm, inviting presence as a rebel German) is hiding a Jewish girl, Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie in her best performance yet) in the walls of their home. Jojo sees a perfect opportunity to get in the Führer’s good graces by learning everything about Judaism through Elsa—like where the “Queen Jew lays her eggs”— but after developing a friendship, and later an infatuation, he discovers that, oh, maybe Jews aren’t so bad after all. Jojo Rabbit rapidly cycles through tonal shifts, leaving the Wes Anderson fairytale behind for tense stakeouts and a war-time weepy that indicates what we’re watching isn’t so radically different from the Holocaust tearjerkers it (ultimately unsuccessfully) attempts to separate itself from.
Jojo Rabbit has proudly billed itself as an “anti-hate satire,” and while I’m all for eradicating prejudice, if there’s anyone that deserves to be hated, it’s Nazis. It’s an even bigger stretch to call it a satire. Waititi has, so far, found significant success with his Kiwi brand of wholesome humor with films like What We Do in the Shadows and Hunt for the Wilderpeople, each of which finds laughter in the innocuous. But when entrenched in World War II Germany, his off-kilter comedy doesn’t quite land. The film recycles the same “Heil, Hitler!” joke too many times to count—as if great punchlines were hard to come by—and it rarely rises above making a too-basic mockery of the far-right. Jojo Rabbit isn’t so much provocative as it is the feel-good Nazi crowd-pleaser of the year.
Look no further than the Hitler Youth leaders who are depicted as nothing more than idiotic buffoons—as if Nazis are so stupid that they just accidentally ordered the mass execution of Jews. This group includes Alfie Allen, Rebel Wilson and Sam Rockwell (who just can’t seem to stop playing racists). I get what the film is trying to achieve here: that the worst insult you can give to the alt-right is that they are all clowns. But by the time Germany’s loss turns from a likelihood to a reality, the film can’t help but succumb to a “good on both sides” narrative.
In this, Waititi’s most star-studded lineup yet, his cast does the most to compensate for the mostly one-note characters written for them. Waititi brings his trademark idiosyncrasy and pitch-perfect comedic timing to his Hitler, while Johansson is exuberant and soulful as ever. But it’s McKenzie who emerges as the film’s greatest delight as the snarky Elsa, a headstrong refugee who tries to hide her terror until she can’t any longer.
When Jojo Rabbit does elicit some laughs, they are rapturous, but the problem with the film is its heavy-handed sentimentality. By the bittersweet end (more sweet than bitter), the film has exhausted its preaching, proclaiming that the key to fixing the world is a little bit of kindness and that love is love is love is love. It’s the most surface-level provoking of right-wing ignorance, though Academy voters may very well give it Best Picture as reparations for last year’s tone-deaf winner, Green Book. Waititi launches an ambitious appeal for the trying times of today, but sincerity can only get Jojo Rabbit so far.
Everyone wants to work with director Taika Waititi—he makes hilarious, award-winning movies. But it’s the manic, genius energy Waititi brings to set that makes the likes of Chris Hemsworth, Cate Blanchett, and Tessa Thompson want to work with him.
Originally Appeared on GQ