Though Jojo Rabbit has forcibly positioned itself as ‘the film we need right now’, it’s actually hard to think of a time less suited to a soft lampooning of the German Nazi party of the Second World War than 2019. Neo-Nazis and other fascists are as powerful as they’ve ever been worldwide right now, so a Wes Anderson-lite look at the Third Reich seems inordinately quaint. That’s not to say that Jojo Rabbit isn’t a sweet and entertaining film with some wonderfully enjoyable performances, but it certainly doesn’t earn the label of ‘important’ and lacks the courage to really examine the darkness of its subject matter.
Comically adapting Christine Leunens’s far more serious novel, Caging Skies, Jojo Rabbit takes a child’s-eye view of the dying days of World War 2, with Berlin being surrounded and eventually taken by the Allies. 10 year old Jojo Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis) is a fanatical member of the Hitler Youth, desperate to fight for his countries and catch Jews, but his blind ideological commitment is challenged by finding Jewish girl Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) in his attic. Hidden there by his kind, Nazi-resisting mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson), Elsa bonds with Jojo as she tries to wait out the end of the war and find freedom.
Taika Waititi tries to make Jojo’s journey both funny and moving, but only intermittently succeeds in either direction. Neither as sharp as a satire (which Jojo Rabbit, despite its marketing, resolutely is not) should be, nor sincere enough to meaningfully engage with Nazi horrors, it’s caught in a rather cowardly middle ground. It certainly entertains from start to finish, but doesn’t put in the work to be more than fleeting fun. There are some great lines and physical gags, and the kids give amazing performances, but Waititi is far too fond of his own cartoonish performance as Jojo’s imaginary friend version of Hitler, and trades real gags for tiresome mugging at the camera.
Far better, and funnier, in support are Sam Rockwell as a non-believing, possibly gay, Nazi captain, Alfie Allen as his hilariously shrill second in command, and Stephen Merchant, who has a five minute scene as a creepily jovial Gestapo officer and steals the whole film. Griffin Davis is a revelation, and McKenzie proves her excellent performance in Leave No Trace was no fluke, whilst Johansson has a really great time sinking her teeth into a fun and moving role.
Though Waititi borrows too heavily from Wes Anderson to make a distinct visual mark with Jojo Rabbit, his use of music helps the film stand out. Every needle drop is great, and the gimmick of translating a series of fun pop songs into German works rather well. The spirited soundtrack keeps the energy up and most characters get at least one fun dance number each. A film of lots of nice, fun moments, Jojo Rabbit doesn’t add up to a fully satisfying whole, and asks far too few questions of its audience if it wants to be taken seriously as a political piece, but it’s a really enjoyable ride.