The success of Thor: Ragnarok meant that Taika Waititi could make whatever film he wanted to make as a follow-up, and so we have Jojo Rabbit, a strange animal indeed that reaches Tarrant County theaters this week. I don’t think this anti-Nazi satire works, but as failures go, it’s a compelling one.
Taking place in the waning days of World War II, Johannes “Jojo” Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis) is a 10-year-old boy in a German village who is such a fanatical Nazi that Adolf Hitler (played by Waititi himself) appears to him as an imaginary friend. Unfortunately, when Jojo attends a Hitler Youth camp, his unwillingness to kill a bunny earns him the nickname “Jojo Rabbit.” Even more unfortunately, his attempt to redeem himself gets him blown up by a grenade, leaving him with a scarred face, a limp, and dashed dreams of becoming Der Führer’s personal bodyguard. Left in his village to distribute propaganda, he returns home early one day and finds a Jewish teenager named Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) secreted in the walls. She was a friend of Jojo’s now-dead older sister, and their mother (Scarlett Johansson) has been hiding her. Imaginary Hitler tells Jojo to burn the house down and blame Churchill, but the boy has other ideas.
The film is based on Christine Leunens’ novel Caging Skies, but where the book is fundamentally serious and about teenagers, the movie opens itself up to comedy by making its characters children. (Oh, and imaginary Hitler? That’s all this movie’s creation.) The opening at that summer camp plays like Moonrise Kingdom with a lot more swastikas, with the camp’s matriarch (Rebel Wilson) boasting about the 18 kids she’s had for the fatherland and Jojo’s overweight best friend (Archie Yates) accidentally sticking another kid in a knife-throwing drill. I don’t object to this tone, and the movie does come out much more watchable than other films that have tried to glimpse the Nazi horror through a child’s limited perspective (Life Is Beautiful, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, The Book Thief). The trouble is that the scenes between Jojo and Elsa stop the film dead because Waititi doesn’t know how to inject humor into them, even with Elsa feeding Jojo’s head with stories of Jews having psychic powers and hanging upside-down on ceilings. He’s even more at sea when the proceedings start to turn grim near the end and characters start dying, which he can’t reconcile with his comic approach. Wes Anderson managed this territory much more skillfully in The Grand Budapest Hotel. Come to think of it, Waititi himself balanced comedy and tragedy better in Hunt for the Wilderpeople.
The director does assemble a good cast, with Stephen Merchant hitting some goofy notes as a fey Gestapo agent and Sam Rockwell bringing his talent for playing dissolute types to the role of the youth camp commander, a drunken, one-eyed, possibly gay lieutenant who has stopped pretending to give a crap. If you haven’t seen Waititi outside of the Thor movies, you might not know that he’s a nimble and rubbery-limbed physical comedian himself. He makes imaginary Hitler properly buffoonish, especially in a scene when the dictator participates in a synchronized swimming routine while Jojo goes through physical therapy.
This doesn’t keep Jojo Rabbit from being a failure, albeit one where you can see the better movie that the filmmaker was trying to make. It’s the sort of failure worth saluting, ambitious, somewhat insane, aiming at a worthy target. He’s smart and talented enough to learn from it, and certainly funny enough to keep us entertained.
Starring Roman Griffin Davis and Thomasin McKenzie. Written and directed by Taika Waititi, based on Christine Leunens’ novel. Rated PG-13.