So, the Hitler movie was always going to be tough to land, yeah?
“Jojo Rabbit,” a fantastical satire from “Thor: Ragnarok” director Taika Waititi, is set in Nazi Germany. (The film, now in theaters, opened Austin’s Fantastic Fest in September.) Waititi plays the imaginary friend of the protagonist, a young boy in the Hitler Youth. That imaginary friend has a small mustache, a pasted-down hairdo and a love of khaki jodhpurs, and his name is Adolf.
It would be easier just to say the things that couldn’t potentially go wrong there.
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Hitler’s been a character ripe for film satire since the days of Charlie Chaplin. But in a slick, whimsical movie produced by a Disney subsidiary, you wonder how sharp you can be with those trappings. Neo-Nazis and white supremacists are today more visible than they’ve been in awhile, actively spewing their repugnant hate onto the world stage. Is anything funny about a rubber-faced, idiot Hitler?
A little of column A, a little of column B, as it turns out.
“Jojo Rabbit” kicks off with a rendition of “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” as 10-year-old Jojo Betzler (a phenomenal Roman Griffin Davis) is in the throes of Hitlermania during the waning days of World War II. He and his “second-best” friend, Yorki (Archie Yates, deadpan and delightful and definitely the best part of the movie), head to a Hitlerjugend camp, an evil ropes course where canoeing is traded for book-burning and macaroni art is ditched for drills in dehumanizing Jews. It’s all filmed in an easy-breezy, lunatic style — you’ll either bust a gut at the absurdity or shift in your seat. Heck, both could happen.
Jojo’s an innocent soul, despite the ... well, everything. He gets his nickname — during a scene that reads like “Dazed and Confused” under a genocidal regime — for a lack of killer instinct and a pair of fleet feet. After an accident, Jojo is sidelined under the care of his mother, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson, playing a supermom in smart fashions that would make Marlene Dietrich green with envy). While at home, he discovers a Jewish girl named Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) hiding in their walls under Rosie’s protection. He can’t tell the authorities, because his mother will get in trouble. Threatened by Elsa, he can’t tell his mother he knows. What’s a wide-eyed Hitler youth to do?
The premise is a clue, but “Jojo Rabbit” turns out to be a true satire less often than it’s a sensitive story of a well-meaning little boy taught to worship the wrong hero and discovering that the right thing isn’t always what the powerful people do. If ever there were a time for a story about good people trying their best in the background of a corrupted world, this is it.
Waititi’s style — zany, madcap, off-kilter — is at once wildly entertaining and a sometimes awkward fit for “Jojo Rabbit.” In a pre-screening introduction at Fantastic Fest, the director spoke of how war makes our world absurd, and kids are led astray by the adults that should be teaching them what’s right. He sells this thesis in the movie, a screwball dramedy that unsettles you with how easily youthful enthusiasm can be corrupted. Swing a sack of potatoes at any dark corner of the internet, and you’ll see how urgent that point is today. There’s a tension, though, between the “dra-” and the ”-medy” of “Jojo Rabbit” that Waititi doesn’t always smooth out. In the film’s world, sight gags about Aryan clone boys coexist with depictions of horrific executions. Acid snark and shattering earnestness, all seen through a guileless (well, almost) child’s eyes.
As Jojo, Griffin carries the film with those saucer eyes, balancing innocence, learned vileness and a comic timing that keeps pace with Waititi’s biggest swings. As a kid’s concept of the führer, Waititi is Daffy Duck in a swastika armband, a flurry of meek lil’ “heils” and spit-flecked tantrums. His scenes, happening in Jojo’s mind, could easily be excised plot-wise, but they’re added value when it comes to the film’s notion of how deeply a bad idea can take root in your brain.
Continuing his streak of playing the worst idea in a movie, Sam “Three Billboards” Rockwell shows up as faded Nazi officer with the bearing of an alcoholic uncle, who is also maybe gay, and who also gets a sympathetic arc that turns the viewer into that emoji with the horizontal line for a mouth. Rebel Wilson, Stephen Merchant and Alfie Allen get turns as inept Nazis, too.
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As Elsa, McKenzie does nothing short of keeping the movie from squeezing out at the seams. In one of his smartest tricks, Waititi’s camera introduces her like she’s Samara from “The Ring,” which is pretty close to what Jojo would fear seeing if he discovered a girl hiding in his wall. Before it’s all said and done, Elsa seems almost to have turned the tide of the war herself, just by being decent and smarter than everyone around her. McKenzie’s sense of wit more than once keeps scenes from careening into the horizon like an Acme-brand rocket.
One of the most effective scenes in “Jojo Rabbit” is a stolen conversation between Elsa and Rosie. “Perhaps we’re all just ghosts now and don’t even know it,” Elsa says at a low point. No, Rosie says: “They say you can’t live.” So don’t let them be right.
“Jojo Rabbit” is uncomfortable in ways that work and ways that don’t, but its heart is assured. What do you do when the country you love absolutely loses its mind with hate? When people are being hurt or worse just for who they are, and when authoritarian fever for the man who brought it all about seems inescapable?
You try your best to help those who need it.
This review was originally published during Fantastic Fest 2019 and was updated Oct. 24, 2019.