Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit may have been undermined by its own marketing campaign. The acclaimed comedy filmmaker (What We Do in the Shadows, Thor: Ragnarok) has been touting his movie as a bold satirical comedy about Nazis since it was first announced, and the movie’s posters bill it as “an anti-hate satire.” The movie itself is more of a soft-hearted, mostly family-friendly story about tolerance and unity, with lessons familiar from decades of films about World War II and the Holocaust. The humor is often more gentle than pointed, and even the over-the-top caricatures of Nazis have a softness to them that minimizes their bite. But just because the marketing was misleading doesn’t mean that Jojo Rabbit is a bad movie, and as far as sentimental World War II movies go, it’s mostly effective.
That’s thanks in big part to two strong young actors at the center of the story. Roman Griffin Davis plays the title character, a 10-year-old in a small German town toward the tail end of World War II, who’s picked on by his peers (that’s where the demeaning “rabbit” nickname comes from) and spends most of his time talking to his imaginary friend, Adolf Hitler (Waititi). Yes, Jojo imagines Hitler as his best friend, which is the movie’s most superficially daring element, although Waititi plays Hitler as a genial buffoon, who’s mainly a reflection of Jojo’s deep desire to belong. Jojo is obsessed with Hitler and the Nazis not out of any genuine ideology, but just because he wants to fit in among the cooler, older kids, who are heading off to fight in the war or training with the Hitler Youth.
But Jojo is small and awkward, and his only friend (aside from Hitler) is pudgy nerd Yorki (Archie Yates), who’s even more of a misfit. Jojo’s mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) scoffs at the war and looks down on the Nazis, and Jojo discovers that she’s been hiding a Jewish teenage girl, Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), in a crawlspace in their house. Blindly believing that Jews are horned monsters with evil powers, Jojo at first cowers in Elsa’s presence and threatens to expose her, but they soon become friends, showing Jojo that Jews are human beings deserving of love and respect (much to the chagrin of imaginary Hitler).
Waititi, working loosely from the novel Caging Skies by Christine Leunens, plays Jojo’s cartoonish misconceptions about Jews for laughs, and he portrays local Nazi officials played by Sam Rockwell, Rebel Wilson and Stephen Merchant as deluded idiots. There are funny moments as the Nazis boldly proclaim victory in the face of imminent defeat, but it’s also clear that their deluded idiocy makes them dangerous, and as the movie goes on, the humor mostly fades away, in favor of sometimes clumsy emotional bonding and somber reflection. The jokey first half lets the more serious second half sneak up on the audience, and some of the most devastating moments work because they immediately follow laughter.
It would probably be a stretch to call Jojo Rabbit a satire, since it doesn’t provide much social commentary beyond “Nazis are bad.” But that’s still a valuable message, and the movie’s lessons are effectively conveyed by Jojo’s journey from wide-eyed Nazi acolyte to slightly more mature humanist. McKenzie, who gave a breakout performance in last year’s Leave No Trace, gives Elsa a compelling mix of defiance and melancholy, and she and Davis work well together, as the characters slowly come to understand and rely on each other. Johansson brings a wistful weariness to the mother who both loves her son and worries that she can’t trust him. Rockwell, Wilson and Merchant occasionally overplay their characters’ ridiculousness, but it’s all in service to the movie’s message that love and respect should triumph over hate and greed. That may not be complex, but it’s still worthwhile.