The film is based on Christine Leunens’s novel Caging Skies, a serious and strange tale of a devout 10-year-old Hitler Youth named Johannes Betzler who discovers that his mother is sheltering a Jewish girl in their home. In adapting the book, Waititi kept the story’s child’s-eye view and even retained Johannes’s dreamy visions of an imaginary Hitler. But Waititi’s movie begins with slapstick comedy, as “Jojo” (Roman Griffin Davis) attends a Hitler Youth camp and injures himself while trying to convince the other boys of his cold warrior heart.
Waititi portrays Jojo as a plucky but delusional kid, a softie whose juvenile devotion to Nazism has extended to total adoration of Hitler. As such, the dictator appears, played by Waititi, as an imaginary friend, a preening and egotistical fool who pops into existence to give Jojo new morsels of terrible advice. Jojo’s mother, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson), does her best to counter that influence with level-headed guidance while harboring her Jewish ward, Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), in a secret part of the house. Much of the film’s early conflict derives from Rosie’s fear that Jojo is too far gone—that the ideology of a regime that’s existed his whole life has irrevocably brainwashed him.
That’s what I took to be Waititi’s ultimate point—that Nazism and its tenets could only seem logical from the viewpoint of a kid, who might actually believe that Jews are horn-headed monsters. The director makes every adult Nazi in the film seem childlike, from the despondent, wounded war veteran Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell) to a comically ghoulish Gestapo agent played by Stephen Merchant; comic actors including Rebel Wilson round out some of the big supporting roles.
These Nazis wouldn’t look out of place in a throwback sitcom like ‘Allo ‘Allo! or Hogan’s Heroes—broad TV comedies from earlier decades that got their biggest laughs by playing up the buffoonery and stupidity of the Third Reich. But that cartoonishness co-exists somewhat uncomfortably alongside the reality that Waititi slowly allows to seep into the plot, as Jojo develops an empathetic bond with Elsa and danger builds around Rosie’s clandestine resistance operation. Waititi is telling a story of a boy learning about love and kindness as he grows up, but it’s a lesson that feels too simple and treacly for such a morally fraught universe.
Jojo Rabbit is most engaging when it’s at its zaniest. Waititi is an effervescent screen presence even when wearing a Nazi uniform, and he wrings plenty of absurd gags out of his character’s imaginary status. But as the film enters its final act and violence erupts, the whole storytelling experiment turns sour. Jojo Rabbit’s script isn’t emotionally complex enough to address the cruel realism of its world, and as the bleakness continues, the jokes fall flatter and flatter. Waititi is trying to strike an impossible balance here, and while he wins a few big battles, he ends up losing the war.