Jojo Rabbit is the feel-good Holocaust movie of the year, and however uncomfortable that description might make you, discomfort is very low on the list of feelings the film hopes to provoke. Taika Waititi, the Kiwi funnyman who made Thor: Ragnarok and What We Do In The Shadows, seemed to be courting controversy when he announced he was writing, directing, and starring as Hitler (!) in a comedy about Nazi Germany. What could be more daring, more dangerous, than making light of history’s darkest chapter, especially at a time when white supremacy is on the rise? Yet no matter how nervous its “risky” premise makes the execs at Disney, Jojo Rabbit isn’t much of a provocation. It doesn’t want to get a rise out of its audience; it just wants to tug at heartstrings and renew faith in the resilience of the human spirit. Only those who think it’s fundamentally inappropriate to poke fun at Hitler—something artists have been doing since he was still alive—will be shocked in any way by this twee, treacly, and sporadically amusing movie.
The first few minutes hint at a slightly zanier, more irreverent comedy, if not necessarily a better one. Jojo Rabbit opens with a credits sequence that sets archival footage of “Hitler mania”—of cheering crowds being whipped into a nationalist fervor—to a German cover of “I Want To Hold Your Hand.” This teases Waititi’s sympathy for a country swept up in the pageantry, as much as the ideology, of fascism. Certainly, it’s the promise of scout-troop camaraderie, activities, and uniforms that draws 10-year-old Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) to the Hitler Youth. Jojo doesn’t really have a Nazi disposition; it’s his refusal to kill a bunny, after all, that earns him the titular nickname. Like a lot of lonely, ostracized kids, he talks to an imaginary friend. That friend just happens to be the Führer himself, who Waititi plays as a comic anachronism: a catty and petulant gossip, prone to exclamations like “Jeez, that was intense!”
There’s an ersatz Wes Anderson quality to these early scenes, especially the ones set at a moonrise-kingdom Nazi summer camp run by Sam Rockwell and Rebel Wilson, as the most doltish, sarcastic officers in the Third Reich. But a plot does eventually emerge, emotionally grounding Waititi’s cartoon shenanigans. Jojo’s single mother, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson, gamely committing to her role as the most woke frau of 1945), gently pushes back against the cult mentality that’s consumed her son since his father disappeared on the front lines. And before long, the boy stumbles upon a secret she’s been concealing: the Jewish teenager, Elsa (Leave No Trace’s Thomasin McKenzie), hiding in their attic. Jojo can’t turn her into the authorities because she might reveal that the family was sheltering her for weeks. And so the two enter into an uneasy stalemate, their antagonism slowly giving way to friendship, Jojo’s loyalty to the movement buckling over time.
If that sounds like the stuff of a fairly straightforward drama, it’s because it’s been borrowed from one: the Christine Leunens novel Caging Skies, which had its own sense of humor, just one not quite as outsized as Waititi’s. The Flight Of The Conchords alum has soaked the material in his sensibility, that signature droll absurdism that so winningly energized the Marvel house style. There are certainly laughs to be found in the writer-director-performer’s shtick (“So, how’s it all going with that Jew thing upstairs?” his imaginary Hitler casually asks the boy), as well as the verbal warfare between Jojo and Elsa, who trolls and threatens her swastika-sporting child companion. But even when the jokes land, they feel ornamental—a clown nose put on a maudlin template audiences have encountered many times before. Waititi, for all his sketch-comedy silliness, isn’t spoofing the kind of middlebrow Holocaust tearjerkers that used to routinely win the Foreign Language Oscar. He’s just made one of his own, jazzed up with a few gags: The Wilderpeople In The Striped Pajamas.
Is it idealistic or just foolish to go looking for proof of humanity’s essential goodness in maybe the most convincing evidence to the contrary? Jojo Rabbit, like plenty of films before it, wants to confront the unfathomable tragedy of the Holocaust with an empowering rebuttal: “Love is the most powerful thing in the world,” Rosie declares—a nice platitude that rings a little false in the face of so much real, destructive, life-destroying evil. The film doesn’t avert its eyes from death, exactly; there are casualties within the small world of characters it creates. But Waititi’s gooey humanism feels painfully naïve in the context of the defining horror of the 20th century. He doesn’t just let the Jojos of the world, the children indoctrinated into Hitler’s agenda, off the hook. He also seems to bend over backwards to depict the grown-up Nazis as incompetent goofballs or neurotic drones—no more detestable, really, than Colonel Klink—when he’s not offering them actual redemption. Even when Stephen Merchant shows up as a Gestapo, hunting for stowaways like Elsa, he’s a Monty Python caricature: a goofy bureaucrat beholden to Sieg Heil protocol and formality.
Maybe it comes back to the larger question of whether it’s even possible to fight fascism with comedy. By making the Nazis look like pure buffoons, does Jojo Rabbit risk diminishing their evil, even painting them in a vaguely sympathetic light? It’s certainly hard to imagine Waititi’s sentimental, kids-glove approach alienating anyone; even if you do the interpretative work to extend the film’s themes to contemporary crises, its condemnation of oppression is too general and toothless—too “they go low, we go high”—to offend, say, even an actual white supremacist. The film is “about right now” only in the sense that Nazis are back, and they still suck. Jojo Rabbit, a very nice but thin crowd-pleaser about love conquering all, bills itself as an “anti-hate satire.” But true satire challenges and provokes. This one offers free hugs.
Note: This is an expanded version of the review The A.V. Club ran from the Toronto International Film Festival.