US publisher Abrams describes Christine Leunens novel Caging Skies as “darkly comic”, but the story is also a bleak one. It seems baffling why anyone would want to make a comedy about a boy in the Hitler Youth who discovers his mother is hiding a Jewish girl, but that is what writer-director Taika Waititi has done with Jojo Rabbit. Waititi applies his comedic style to this story with a thought-provoking statement, but as a whole, it does not entirely succeed.
Johannes “Jojo” Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis) is a ten-year-old boy who decides to join the Hitlerjugend for a weekend training camp with his friend Yoki (Archie Yates). The leader of the training camp, Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell), has the children doing all sorts of unsavory activities from knife throwing to book burning. It is clear from the start that there is conflict within Jojo and whether he is capable of subscribing to the Nazi ideology, including an incident with a rabbit in which Jojo earns his nickname. In an attempt to show his bravery, Jojo injures himself in another training exercise. As a result, Jojo ends up doing odd jobs for Klenzendorf, demoted for allowing Jojo’s accident to happen. Jojo often spends time at home as his mother, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson), is out discreetly aiding the anti-Nazi resistance. One day Jojo discovers she is hiding a Jewish girl Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) in their house. Jojo threatens to turn her over to the Gestapo, but Elsa informs him that he and his mother face execution for helping her. Jojo’s dichotomy leads him to let Elsa stay as he tries to learn as much about Jews from her. Amongst all this, Jojo has a faux Adolf Hitler (Waititi) as an imaginary friend who wants him to believe in Nazism.
There are many successful satire films set in the period of the Second World War, but this is not one of them. Yet, many satirical traits are present in Jojo Rabbit. There is an attempt at humour, but it feels vastly forced, often unfunny, and unoriginal. However, it does show how people easily believe asinine lies created to denounce a race or religion. Unfortunately, the use of melodrama is too overplayed, particularly from many members of the supporting cast including Waititi. The inclusion of Hitler was his idea and not part of the novel, and the film could have worked better without an imaginary Nazi Führer. However, Johansson and Rockwell stand out as giving the most engaging performances in the adult cast, and McKenzie gives a beautifully nuanced performance as Elsa as well. Griffin Davis expresses well the difficulty he faces in his journey of self-discovery.
Jojo Rabbit contains excellent production and costume designs that are reminiscent of Wes Anderson‘s work but, despite this, the film’s content is lacking. Jojo Rabbit seems repetitive and lacks a stable pace, particularly within the scenes between Jojo and Elsa. Regardless, in its final act, the film exhibits its message well. Perhaps Jojo Rabbit could have been a better film if the script was more refined (not so overstuffed with unamusing dialogue) and adapted the novel’s original plot. Overall, Jojo Rabbit‘s all-too-apparent flaws detract from what is notable.