Review: Jojo Rabbit Is Taika Waititi’s Marvel Presents Mein Kampf

Waititi is incapable of dealing with the twin horrors of oppression and indoctrination beyond cheap-seats sentimentality and joke-making.

Jojo Rabbit
Photo: Fox Searchlight Pictures

Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit is the work of a free man. A man, that is, with all the short-term independence that Marvel money and Hollywood blockbuster street cred can buy. This spectacularly wrongheaded “anti-hate satire” (as per the how-the-hell-do-we-market-this-thing ad campaign) is the feature-length equivalent of the “Springtime for Hitler” number from Mel Brooks’s The Producers, sans context and self-awareness. It takes place in a goofball period la-la land of its own creation, with sets as minutely detailed and shots as precisely composed as those in a Wes Anderson fantasia. Indeed, Jojo Rabbit suggests what that dapper hipster auteur might generate if he was to remake Elem Klimov’s hallucinatory, horrifying World War II epic Come and See, and that’s not a compliment.

The film, which Waititi adapted from Christine Leunens’s 2008 novel Caging Skies, begins with actual Nazi propaganda footage scored to a German cover of “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” Intercut with this choice, such as it is, are the nationalistic squeals and sieg-heiling of 10-year-old Jojo Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis), off to the best weekend ever at a Hitler Youth retreat during the waning days of WWII. The trip doesn’t go as planned, this despite Jojo’s imaginary best friend, Adolf Hitler (Waititi, aiming for the Great Dictator but barely hitting Ace Ventura), cheering him from the sidelines. Jojo gets the title nickname after he fails to kill a cute widdle bunny wabbit in the presence of some odious SS counselors. Then he’s sent home after a hand grenade explodes in close proximity, bruising his legs and scarring his face.

Jojo’s doting mom, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson), is more than happy to have him back under her roof. But the lady’s got a secret: She’s hiding a teenage Jewish girl, Elsa Korr (Thomasin McKenzie), in the walls. Jojo discovers Elsa one day by chance and the two begin an antagonistic, eventually heart-and-mind-opening platonic courtship that’s part Moonrise Kingdom, part The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, and all shamelessly offensive.

There’s certainly a place for stories of war seen from the perspective of children; few are greater than J.G. Ballard’s Empire of the Sun and Steven Spielberg’s radical, and radically under-appreciated, film adaptation. But Waititi proves incapable of dealing with the twin horrors of oppression and indoctrination, of young and old alike, beyond cheap-seats sentimentality and joke-making. So we get such sink-into-your-seat moments as an Allied air bombing used as a backdrop for Jojo and Elsa’s chaste canoodling. Not to mention a below-the-belt gag that posits the vanquishing of fascist oppression as a simple foot-to-groin proposition. Anti-Semitic slurs and stereotypes are also consistently utilized for easy guffaws. The intent may be to debunk these noxious clichés, but the effect is hardly transgressive—more monotonously admonishing in a “c’mon, you know this is wrong” sort of way.

There’s a hint of some genuine real-world unease in an early scene in which Rosie forces Jojo to look at a line of dead resistance fighters hanging from the gallows. “Uck!” the boy says, as if he’d just been forced to eat his vegetables. Something in the way he spits out the word captures a child on a moral precipice, and a much better film than Jojo Rabbit would tease out that tension for all it’s worth, unearthing the dark humor along the way.

Waititi prefers to treat his audience like drooling cretins who need their hands held through every shift in tone, reassured that everything, even in a world off its axis, is going to work out. It doesn’t help that this misguided production is utterly devoid of laughs, though I admit to cracking a desperate smile when the nitwit Nazi played by Sam Rockwell demands that an underling bring him German shepherds, as in the dogs, and is instead delivered shepherds who are German. It’s a flash of punny bliss in what’s otherwise Marvel Presents Mein Kampf.

 Cast: Roman Griffin Davis, Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie, Taika Waititi, Scarlett Johansson, Sam Rockwell, Rebel Wilson, Stephen Merchant, Alfie Allen  Director: Taika Waititi  Screenwriter: Taika Waititi  Distributor: Fox Searchlight Pictures  Running Time: 108 min  Rating: PG-13  Year: 2019  Buy: Video, Soundtrack

Keith Uhlich

Keith Uhlich's writing has been published in The Hollywood Reporter, BBC, and Reverse Shot, among other publications. He is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle.

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