Jojo Rabbit: A Dull Satire With A Dash Of Charm
New Zealand writer/director Taika Waititi funnels his Thor: Ragnarok money into a self-professed “anti-hate satire” about Nazis, which we think is the cutest little misfire we’ve seen all year. Jojo Rabbit — or Inglorious Moonreich Kingdom as we like to call it — wants to be make light of WWII and the Holocaust while also showing its grim consequences, and it just doesn’t work. Its tone may be wonky, and its satire may be soft, ineffective, and surface-level, but it’s not without its moments of Kiwi charm.
The film follows a lonely German boy, Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis), whose world view is turned upside down when he discovers his single mother (Scarlett Johansson) is hiding a young Jewish girl (Thomasin McKenzie) in their attic. Aided only by his idiotic imaginary friend, Adolf Hitler (Taika Waititi), Jojo must confront his blind nationalism.
Underneath its counterfeit Wes Anderson style and cute naiveté, Jojo Rabbit really doesn’t have anything profound to say, outside the obvious cliche of “Love conquers all” (with dancing). Its satire is pointless, in that it’s not sharp enough to pierce below surface-level and lacks any meaningful sense of purpose, and it fails to do anything substantial with its setting other than use it to say, “Boy, the Nazis were a bit much, right?”
Furthermore, the Nazis are never really vilified; they’re all somewhat lovable, and like Jojo, they’re confused and misguided. Perhaps, the point is to illustrate how even in the most despicable of things (i.e. Nazis), there’s a human being still in there underneath all the idiotic hatred; however, the way Jojo plays it makes it seem like the Nazis are nothing more than cute buffoons, which severely undercuts the atrocities countless people suffered.
The film’s characters aren’t particularly teed up too well and their motivations are vague and as soft as its satire. For instance, it never really explores why it is Jojo desires to dress up “in a funny uniform” and “be part of a club,” aside from he’s German — which when you factor in that his mother is aiding a Jewish girl, it’s hard to believe that she’d really subject her son to that, even if it’s a cover (and if it’s mandatory, that was never said). His imaginary friend is a racially inaccurate version of Hitler that gives mixed messages of positive encouragement wrapped in ill-conceived advice, which is an external visualization of Jojo’s confused internal state; however, this doesn’t really factor into the story that much and is also never used to any meaningful ends.
But far and away, our biggest problem with Jojo is that it’s a humorless comedy. It’s either too hard to laugh at because of its subject matter or out-of-tune tone, or its jokes are just flat out not funny. It’s bad dad-joke central and full of half-assed gags — a perfect example being an entirely too long “Heil Hitler” bit that seems to go on forever. Its premise is full of potential ripe for the taking, but Waititi only seems concerned with taking aim at the lowest hanging fruit, and he never manages to hit a home run.
Outside of a smattering of light chuckles, Jojo didn’t make us — or the anyone in our audience — laugh all that much, which is pretty shocking given how naturally funny Waititi’s previous films are. Considering what Jojo takes aim at, it’s hard not to compare it to Chaplin’s Great Dictator or Mel Brooks’ Producers for its satirical Hitler musical (both of which are superior in our eyes), and when you put them side to side, Jojo is even more smalltime.
Where its satire and comedy sag, the charm of its characters and performances do a lot to save the ship from sinking entirely. Roman Griffin Davis in particular is a glorious find, and he does a fantastic job as Jojo. The part requires him to show a lot of range, and he’s able to capture the emotional feel of scenes in a way that give them a strong heartbeat. Thomasin McKenzie surprised us all with her performance in Leave No Trace and she continues to prove she’s star-caliber. Sam Rockwell is solidly zany (but not in any standout way), but most surprising of all, the best performance for us came from Scarlett Johansson.
More than any other performer, she imbues the film with a much needed sense of warmth, which makes a particular scene involving feet land with an emotional resonance that was lacking in the rest of the picture. She also has a really palpable chemistry with Davis that gives their mother/son relationship a grounded authenticity that was refreshing amidst the film’s overly cartoony feel. We also have to give a shoutout to Archie Yates, who plays Jojo’s friend Yorki, because he steals every scene he’s in with his adorable cuteness.
Aside from a bit of charm and a dollop of heart, this coming of age satire didn’t do much for us. We wanted something with sharp bit, but all Jojo wants to give is free hugs. It’s a decent little security blanket — if that’s something you need — but it can’t hold a candle to the Paddington films. A lot of other critics and moviegoers seem to eat Jojo up, and we really wish we could’ve been one of them, but the film held us at arm’s length for its entirety. In our opinion, the film is as misguided as Jojo’s imaginary friend, and it’s a big, bold step backwards for Waititi.
Recommendation: If you like movies that chew bubble gum instead of kicking ass, give this cutesy fluff a chance.
Rating: 2.5 accidental injuries outta 5.
What do you think? We want to know. Share your thoughts and feelings in the comments section below, and as always, remember to viddy well!