“You can only frame the greatest human tragedy of all time as ‘twee’ for so long before it gets tired.”
The acquisition of Fox by Disney earlier this year meant that Taika Waititi’s (Thor: Ragnarok, Hunt for the Wilderpeople) latest film Jojo Rabbit fell into the hands of the House of Mouse. In August, reports surfaced that mid-way through a screening, a Disney Executive verbalised their worry that the film, which bills itself as “an anti-hate satire” of the Nazis, would alienate their core fanbase that is used to family-friendly content.
If that Executive had made it the whole way through, however, they would have realised that their worry was misplaced. You’d be hard-pressed to find many feathers ruffled by this cutesy depiction of World War Two-era Germany, as it has little commentary to provide on its ‘controversial’ subject matter.
Roman Griffin Davis plays the titular Jojo, an enthusiastic Hitler Youth member eager to impress der Führer and dreaming of the day he can fight on the frontline. He gains his nickname after he refuses to snap the neck of a rabbit while at a Nazi boot camp weekend led by Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell) and Fraulein Rahm (Rebel Wilson), after which his imaginary friend – Adolf Hitler himself, played by director Taika Waititi – consoles him.
A mishap involving a hand grenade leaves Jojo injured, leading him to spend most of his days at home, during which he discovers that his mother (Scarlett Johansson) has been hiding a Jewish girl, Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), between their walls. Jojo is terrified yet puzzled by his discovery. Elsa doesn’t smell like brussels sprouts or have horns; in fact, she doesn’t appear to be evil at all. This defies logic for Jojo, sparking an idea to interview Elsa on the Jewish race so that he can write a book exposing their dark habits and win the admiration of the Nazi higher-ups.
Waititi’s bumbling depiction of Hitler works initially to secure some laughs but wears thin as time goes on. Indeed, the film depicts every Nazi character as a halfwit, but little more. The film’s insistence that the Nazis were buffoons who had no clue what they were doing rings painfully untrue. In reality, it was their intelligence that led to the rise of their fascism. This issue is endemic of the film’s problem as a whole – there is no depth to these attempts at satire.
Jojo Rabbit has warmth at its core – we see Elsa soften Jojo’s hatred over time as he outgrows the propaganda he has been raised by and learns empathy for those different to him. Paired with the borrowed visual style of Wes Anderson, the film has moments of charm and sweetness that are difficult to reject. Waititi clearly wishes to use this film as a means to fight hatred, but the message is so muddled it ends up teaching the audience little more than “Nazis = Bad”. It’s unfortunate that the film can’t pull off what it’s going for, but you can only frame the greatest human tragedy of all time as ‘twee’ for so long before it gets tired. The film is ultimately too comfortable to make a lasting impression.
Dir: Taika Waititi
Prod: Taika Waititi, Carthew Neal, Chelsea Winstanley
Cast: Roman Griffin Davis, Thomasin McKenzie, Scarlett Johansson, Taika Waititi, Sam Rockwell, Rebel Wilson
Release Date: January 1 2020 (UK)