Jojo Rabbit is a feel-good Holocaust movie, and however uncomfortable that description might make you, discomfort is very low on the list of feelings this film hopes to evoke. Taika Waititi, the New Zealander funnyman behind Thor: Ragnarok and What We Do In The Shadows, seemed to be courting the possibility of controversy when he announced he was writing, directing and starring as Hitler in a comedy about Nazi Germany. But no matter how “risky” this premise could have been, Jojo Rabbit isn’t much of a provocation. It doesn’t want to get a rise out of its audience; it just wants to tug at heartstrings and renew faith in the resilience of the human spirit. Only those who think it’s fundamentally inappropriate to poke fun at Hitler — something artists have been doing since he was still alive — will be shocked in any way by this twee, cloying and sporadically amusing movie.
It’s in the opening few minutes of Jojo Rabbit that hint at a tone of slightly zanier, more irreverent comedy, it’s a tone that we ultimately don’t get. The film opens with a credits sequence that sets archival footage of “Hitler Mania” to a German cover of “I Want To Hold Your Hand.” This teases Waititi’s sympathy for a country caught in the pageantry, as much as the ideology, of fascism. But it’s the promise of scout-troop camaraderie, activities and uniforms that draws pint-sized ten-year-old Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) to the Hitler Youth. And, oh, did I forget to mention that Jojo has a imaginary-friend version of Hitler (played by Waititi himself), who he has long conversations with. The thing is Jojo also doesn’t really have a Nazi disposition; it’s his refusal to kill a bunny, after all, that earns him the titular nickname. And like a lot of lonely, ostracized kids, he turns to his imaginary friend.
There’s a faux Wes Anderson quality to the film’s early scenes, especially the ones set at a Moonrise Kingdom-esque Nazi summer camp run by Sam Rockwell and Rebel Wilson, as the most idiotic, sarcastic, cartoony officers in the Third Reich. But when the plot emerges it begins to emotionally ground Waititi’s cartoonish shenanigans. Jojo’s heavily sentimentalized mother, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson), gently pushes back against the cult mentality that’s consumed her son since his father disappeared on the front lines — in general every onscreen moment for her character exists only to vacate your tear ducts. And before long, Jojo stumbles upon a secret that she’s been concealing: the Jewish teenager, Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), hiding in their crawlspace. Jojo can’t turn her into the authorities because she might reveal that the family was sheltering her for weeks. And so the two enter into an uneasy chess match, their antagonism slowly giving way to friendship, Jojo’s loyalty to the movement buckling over time.
If that sounds like the stuff of a fairly straightforward drama, it’s because it’s been adapted from one: Christine Leunens’ novel Caging Skies, which had its comedic elements, just not quite as outsized as Waititi’s. Here he’s drenched the material in his sensibility, that signature droll absurdism that so winningly energized the Marvel universe. Sure, there’s some laughs to be found in the writer-director-actor’s shtick, as well as the verbal warfare between Jojo and Elsa, who trolls and threatens her swastika-wearing companion. But even when some of the jokes land, they often feel decorative — a dash of vinegar to help you swallow the maudlin template we’ve encountered many times before. The thing is Waititi isn’t spoofing the middlebrow Holocaust tearjerker. He’s just made one of his own, jazzed up with a few gags.
Jojo Rabbit, like plenty of films before it, wants to confront the unfathomable tragedy of the Holocaust with an empowering rebuttal: “Love is the most powerful thing in the world,” Rosie declares — a nice cliché that rings a little false in the face of so much real life-destroying evil. The film doesn’t turn away its eyes from death; there are casualties within the small world of its characters. But the film’s mushy humanism often rings rushed and painfully naïve in the context of the defining horrific surroundings. Waititi doesn’t just let the Jojos of the world, the children brainwashed into Hitler’s agenda, off the hook. He also seemingly bends over backwards to depict the grown-up Nazis as goofballs when he’s not offering them actual redemption. Even when Stephen Merchant shows up as a Gestapo, hunting for stowaways like Elsa, he’s a Monty Python-like caricature, lacking the possible threat he could have brought.
I vastly hesitate to put Jojo Rabbit in the same league of films like Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator or Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be. But all of them bring up the large question of whether it’s even possible to fight fascism with comedy. By making Nazis look like pure buffoons, does Jojo Rabbit risk diminishing their evil, even painting them in a vaguely sympathetic light? I’d still say no. It’s very hard to imagine Waititi’s sentimental, kids-glove approach alienating anyone; even if you do the interpretative work to extend the film’s themes to contemporary crises, its condemnation of oppression is too general and toothless to offend even an actual white supremacist. The humor throughout is so audacious and the psychological insight at times so startling that it’s hard not to be dismayed when an easy and familiar dose of comfort is supplies at the end. Jojo Rabbit is a film “about right now” only in the sense that Nazis are on the rise again, and they still suck. Jojo Rabbit is a very nice but thin crowd-pleaser about love conquering all and even bills itself as an “anti-hate satire.” But I’d say that true satire challenges and often provokes. This one, instead, offers free gooey hugs. There are brief flashes of something worthwhile in Jojo Rabbit, it’s just the rest of the time that’s filled with self-satisfied, so-called provocation that offers sentimentality rather than challenges.