JOJO RABBIT is the kind of movie where I can see why someone would love it, even if I didn’t. It’s sweet and sentimental and just challenging enough to make one feel they are getting a full meal, instead of a sugary and empty calorie amuse-bouche. It’s Taika Waititi’s great swing at being today’s Charlie Chaplin, a clown prince ribbing at the edge of anti-fascist satire. He only partially succeeds. There are moments of great power and emotional resonance in JOJO RABBIT, but many more of hamfisted cloying sentimentality. He hasn’t so much made THE GREAT DICTATOR as he has something along the lines of LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL.
That said, the time might be now for a movie like JOJO RABBIT, a sentimentality obvious act of smart-aleck nose-thumbing. There’s no denying that the world at large is not exactly a happy and welcoming place at the moment. The current cultural zeitgeist, at the moment, is one of overwhelming fear and despair; 2019 is, for lack of a better word, a hard, brittle and exhausting place. Mass shootings, climate change, creeping wealth disparity, the MeToo movement, and the rise of white supremacy, bigotry and far-right neo-Nazi governments throughout the world has left many in a state of depression, anxiety and deep-rooted social PTSD. We are, as a collective entity, broken. We need now, more than ever, movies like JOJO RABBIT to act as a balm, even if they end up being more cotton candy than a substantial meal.
Waititi has one goal in mind: to mock the sheer and utter absurdity of what it means to be a hate-filled Nazi bigot. Of course, anyone who is reading this (hopefully) already knows that — that hating someone based on an arbitrary difference, be it skin color, gender, heritage, orientation, or religion is an act of nincompoopish fools. That’s the beauty, and also the problem of JOJO RABBIT: it’s a film with a very necessary message, but one it delivers with cheerful sledgehammer force.
Granted, maybe Waititi is smart in telling his film this way. Waititi adapted the movie from the novel CAGING SKIES, by Christine Leunen, and tells the story of the titular ten-year-old Nazi Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis), a devotedly fascistic little runt who doesn’t let his inability to effectively be a “good” Nazi (he gets kicked out of a troop of Hitler youth trainees for injuring and disfiguring himself with a grenade) stop his love for the cause. He even has a special imaginary friend in the form of none other than Adolph himself, played by Waititi as a cheerfully daft cartoon font of bigoted “inspirational” hate.
Jojo is, in other words, the perfect target for radicalization into white supremacist propaganda. He’s a moptopped Aryan white boy with a missing war hero father (Jojo’s mother, played by Scarlett Johanssen, tells him he is off fighting in the war) and a child’s unflinchingly beguiled world view. Jojo might think he’s devoted to the cause, but really, he’s a little kid playing dress up; it’s his equivalent of a superhero costume, complete with a goofball hero-worship idol that is his blinkered, jovially happy-idiot version of what the leader of the Reich would (he’s an incorrigibly naive anti-Semite.) Jojo is, in fact, JOJO RABBIT’s sweetly misguided avatar for all those lost young white men who, cut adrift by their own perceived societal expectations, get sucked into the maw of corrosive totalitation fanaticism. Jojo is being seduced by the machinations of the Third Reich, but for now he’s just playing dress-up. He just needs someone to show him a different way.
That someone comes in the form of Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), a teenaged Jewish girl who he finds hiding in a crawlspace in his late sister’s bedroom. Elsa was hidden by Jojo’s mother and it’s a discovery that is played like a parody of Japanese horror movies, with Elsa, the dirty and lank- haired “other” crawling out of the cubby like some sort of creeping monster (which, to Jojo, she is.) Elsa is, of course, not a monster; she’s a sweetly worldly young woman who can see through the young boy’s hoodwinked bluster. She easily gains the upper hand and that sparks a curiosity in the kid. Knowing that he can’t alert the dissolute Nazi captain (Sam Rockwell) that employs him to plaster propaganda leaflets over walls of her presence — it would mean certain death for his mother — Jojo decides to study Elsa like an exotic speciman, quizzing her on what its like to be a Jew. It’s all in the guise of writing a book — an expose of Jewish reality (or his child’s view of Jewish reality, full of bonkers mythic lies about penis-stealing and horn-growing) — but it’s really because Jojo is once both fearful of and entranced by this strange woman before him.
The movie makes it clear that Jojo isn’t really a Nazi — just your typically confused bright-eyed kid. The movie even tells us that in dialogue that it gives to Elsa. Early on, Jojo is ordered by a pair of cackling teen Nazis to kill a rabbit — but he can’t. Jojo is too timidly nice for that, and that act of rebellion earns him the sobriquet of “Jojo Rabbit.” Jojo is, at his heart, too pure for hate, and what he thinks he believes is just the learned parroting of the society, of him striving to fit in, even if that means he must arbitrarily hate to do so.
What Waititi is saying is that it’s not too late, that we can prevent the rise of bigotry by teaching the next generations (particularly the young men) that hatred is absurd and pointless. That’s a very good lesson to teach, and a necessary one. It’s just that Waititi does it in a very tidy and cutesy manner. JOJO RABBIT is like a Wes Anderson film stripped of the caustic bitter energy underlying films like MOONRISE KINGDOM. JOJO RABBIT is twinkle-eyed and sweet, but it’s also not very funny, and that’s why it’s more saccharine qualities standout. Waitit doesn’t really nail the satire part. He makes his Hitler a figure of dimwitted mockery, but he doesn’t eke a lot of genuine laughs out of that mockery, and it’s a little too toothlessly obvious to make a figure as monstrous as Hitler into a one-note buffoon. There are some stray funny moments, and even more powerful ones, where the filmmaker almost seizes the profundity he’s grasping for; Waititi may have been better off leaning more into those untapped parts of himself rather than leaning back on his wryly goofball tendencies. But the relationship between Jojo and Elsa feels too programmatic and fairy tale sketchy to work (naturally, it’s all based on Jojo falling in love with this older girl, even though he doesn’t want to admit it.)
That makes the film feel, at times, like a GREEN BOOK for anti-Semitism rather than the scathing critique that is maybe intended. This is a film about an angry gentile boy saved by the kindness and patience of a “magical” Jewish girl. Both Davis and, especially Mackenzie, are terrific as these mismatched youngsters, and so is the rest of the cast; Waititi ekes the right notes out of his actors. And there’s no denying the film looks good and that Waititi is working on the top of his game as a visual director. It’s worth noting that Waititi is a Jewish man himself, and if this is the story that he wants to tell, then far behoove any critic to take that away from him. JOJO RABBIT may be a little simplistic, but maybe now is not the time for a subtle and nuanced work of cinematic criticism. With the world being what it is, maybe we need an act of radically cutesy sweetness such as this, and maybe JOJO RABBIT is a needed film. But there’s also no denying this is more sugar than it is nourishment.
Tags: Alfie Allen, Caging Skies, Christine Leunen, Dramedy, Fantastic Fest, Jojo Rabbit, nazis, Rebel Wilson, Roman Griffin Davis, Sam Rockwell, satire, Scarlett Johansson, Stephen Merchant, Taika Waititi, Thomasin McKenzie