Jojo Rabbit

Jojo Rabbit ★★½

Taika Waititi, the director of Jojo Rabbit, is a funny guy, but he’s also socially conscious and is not afraid to speak out. His Oscar-nominated short film Two Cars, One Night was a humorous yet cutting look at child neglect. After his 2017 New Zealander of the Year award he used the podium to call New Zealand racist as fuck, and in doing so helped propel the topic into the political spotlight and away from what we do in the shadows.

My point is that his cheeky form of humour can be subversive. He is capable of using comedy to say important stuff. So when he claimed he had made an “anti-hate satire” about Nazism, I had high hopes that he’d crafted an allegory for our troubled times. But what I found instead was a gentle muddle – more quagmire than satire. 

Jojo Rabbit concerns Johannes, or Jojo for short (Roman Griffin Davis), a 10 year old boy growing up in Germany during the latter stages of World War II. He has been inculcated by Nazi propaganda over the course of his young life, and as a result he is excited to be going to his first Hitler Youth camp. But his belief in the righteous Reich is shaken, initially by his misadventures at the camp, and then by his discovery in the attic of his home, of a Jewish girl, Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), who is being protected by his mother, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson).

This synopsis sounds like it could be the set up for a serious dramatic film, but Jojo Rabbit is pure fantasy. While the film touches on horrors, it does so gently and accompanied by slapstick or sentiment to soften the blows. I don’t think the aim is to diminish or deny the horrors, but more to distance the audience from needing to engage with any heavy messages. Instead, Waititi invites us to follow Jojo’s white Aryan rabbit into a wonderland where the Nazis are quirky, Adolf Hitler is an imaginary friend, and the Hitler Youth camp is like an amateur school production of Moonrise Kingdom.

Waititi himself takes on the role of Jojo’s imaginary friend, Adolf Hitler, and chooses to play him as a pot-bellied buffoon. I think this is intended to represent the innocence of a 10 year old’s imagination, but it succeeds in making Hitler kind of likeable. This might have landed better with me if the film was trying to be challenging or subversive, but its messages are pretty stock stuff: war is bad, mums are great, a boy needs a dad, love conquers hate. These are all fine and well, but they’re hardly satirical and they feel pasted on to the film rather than emerging from it fully formed.

There are plenty of jokes, but they were surprisingly hit and miss, although I did laugh out loud at the one about the German Shepherds. There’s quite a bit of slapstick, and some of it works well. Sam Rockwell and Stephen Merchant have a lot of fun delivering the comic potential of their characters and Johansson is all lovable pantomime as Jojo’s brave and tipsy mother.

The children are the real stars though. McKenzie (a local Wellington schoolgirl, yay!) is fabulously feisty and full of wit and spark. And Davis does well at slowly expurgating the anti-Jewish propaganda Jojo’s been brought up on. It is their formative relationship that shapes the arc of the story and is the point of the movie. The development of their unlikely friendship, is built on kindness and empathy and it slowly but surely dismantles Jojo’s imaginary relationship with Hitler and his hateful ideologies.

So despite its set up, Jojo Rabbit doesn’t really cut it as a drama, and it’s a pretty lame anti-hate satire, but I can just about accept it as a sweet-natured, odd-couple, buddy movie, with occasionally funny moments. I do, however, struggle to buy it as a responsible movie in 2019. It seems like a dereliction, in the era of Trump and his goons, to make a film that spins fascism as fantasy. At best, the film gave me two hours of sweet escape from the real world, but as enjoyable as that was at the time, I was still left with a sour taste in my mouth.

Despite my misgivings, I do want to highlight one great service the film has given us. As a form of cognitive behavioural therapy, I think the idea of re-casting evil world leaders as Taika Waititi, with kiwi accents and bad costumes, has real merit. If we can all imagine Trump as Taika, maybe all the crippling anxiety will just go away.

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