Taika Waititi’s reputation has undergone a major facelift lately. Three years ago, he was mostly known in indie circles—and in his home country of New Zealand—but just a year later, he had a Marvel movie under his belt and one of the biggest names in the business. And now he’s Hitler! Well, he’s an imaginary version of Hitler, dreamed up by a little Nazi with big Jew-catching dreams. Such is the premise of Waititi’s latest film Jojo Rabbit, which has been billed as an “anti-hate satire”.
That term is a tad oxymoronic. By definition, satire is humor that ridicules the wicked and/or powerful, and nothing makes one wicked and/or powerful quite like hate. What makes Jojo Rabbit more “anti-hate” than your typical satire? For starters, protagonist Jojo Betzler has a hard time harnessing his inner Nazi hatred. He’s already a young fanatic, proudly flaunting his swastikas and Sieg Heiling left and right—but when it comes time to test his mettle by killing a rabbit at Nazi summer camp, he chickens out, earning him the nickname ‘Jojo Rabbit’ (apparently ‘Jojo Chicken’ wasn’t a marketable title). After an attempt to prove his bravery goes wrong, he’s forced to rest up at home, where he finds a Jewish girl hiding in the attic. Autsch!
And lest we forget, Jojo’s imaginary friend is Adolf Hitler, which further compounds the conflict of interest. Or at least it would, in theory—despite imaginary Hitler being the movie’s most original conceit, Waititi’s character barely has a presence in Jojo Rabbit. He appears every once in a while to layer some more comedy on the comedy and then disappears indefinitely. If he were removed from Jojo Rabbit entirely, the movie wouldn’t be much different. Waititi milks the role for screwball silliness, as is his brand, but his insignificance is indicative of wasted potential.
Unfortunately, that could sum of most of the movie’s attempts at satire. The bulk of Jojo Rabbit revolves around the budding relationship between Jojo and Elsa, the Jewish girl that Jojo’s mother is sheltering. Watching Jojo overcome his prejudices and become aware of Elsa’s humanity is supposed to play out like a parable for our time: even in the presence of darkness and (neo) Nazis, light can be found in love. But as aforementioned, satire is a humorous takedown of the wicked, and Jojo is far from wicked. The movie is titled after his meek and empathetic nature, for god’s sake. There’s no struggle or surprise in the fact that Jojo comes around to Elsa, so there’s no bite to the satire. There’s power in finding light in the darkness—not so much in finding light in the slightly less light.
Even when other characters end up sympathizing with Elsa’s suffering, they have a conspicuously easy time shoving their Nazi identities aside. It’s nice—in a fanciful, lowest-common-denominator feel-good kind of way—but it never speaks to or against actual hate. It’s telling that when the movie finally comes together in its last half hour, its strengths have little to do with satire. Jojo Rabbit takes some bravely dark turns in its final act, at least recognizing the horrors that its first hour only depicted once. At this point, the laughs it gets actually mean something, because there’s a tangible discomfort to laughing in the midst of atrocity. The mere coexistence of joy and terror—this cognizant clash of tones—evokes a universal dialectic. It’s not “anti-hate satire”, but it works.
And so does the comedy. The ineptitude with which Jojo Rabbit handles its subject matter doesn’t break the movie’s funny bone. Waititi knows how to craft a gag, and the vast majority of them land. The child actors may lack the comedic timing of Julian Dennison, the young lead of Waititi’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople, but their inexperience is balanced out by a selection of funny actors. On the pathos side of the performances, Thomasin McKenzie is exquisite as Elsa, continuing the promising streak she showcased in last year’s Leave No Trace. Sam Rockwell also demonstrates career consistency with his ability to mine grotesque characters for complexity.
Jojo Rabbit is being distributed by Fox Searchlight, which is now a subsidiary of Disney after they bought 21st Century Fox last year. Disney was reportedly worried about alienating their core audience with a movie about Nazis, but it turns out there’s no need to fret: Jojo Rabbit is milquetoast satire, and it takes risks with the reservation of your average Disney film.