Director: Taika Waititi
Stars: Taika Waititi, Scarlett Johansson, Thomasin McKenzie
With nationalism on the rise – and closer to our doors than we’d often like to think – Taika Waititi’s ‘anti-hate’ satire Jojo Rabbit couldn’t be more timely… on paper. The whimsical director has developed a devout following between cult hits like What We Do In The Shadows and bonefide crossover successes Hunt For The Wilderpeople and Thor: Ragnarok (perhaps the only true instance of an auteur imprinting the Marvel juggernaut with something approaching a signature). With an audience established – and one that crosses political lines – he seems to be in an enviable place to actually help stamp out the fires of hate in the impressionable.
‘Impressionable’ doesn’t just mean children (just look at the UK Conservative party’s election tactics for evidence), though Waititi chooses to frame his wishy-washy manifesto through the eyes of a ten-year-old. Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) is a deeply indoctrinated member of a Nazi youth club in war-torn Germany. He loves the Nazi party so much that his imaginary friend is a happy version of Hitler himself (Waititi). But his blind faith is tested when he discovers that his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) is harboring a Jewish girl, Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie).
One would imagine that Waititi’s favourite Wes Anderson movie is Moonrise Kingdom, as that film echoes throughout Jojo Rabbit. It’s there in the formal sensibilities that Waititi clearly apes; it’s there in the costuming and colour palette, and the focus on children of course. Waititi is a talented champion of unashamedly silly comedy, harking back to the zany quirks of Monty Python or Robin Williams. The latter frequently comes to mind when considering Waititi’s inclination for embracing childish wonder, too. Unfortunately, as in the case of Williams, this can often-as-not manifested in broken, overtly saccharine movies that, well, aren’t very good.
Jojo follows in these footsteps. You’ll find more cutting satire in an episode of ‘Allo ‘Allo. Despite the timely message Waititi insists that he is imparting, Jojo is conspicuously bereft. It’s humour is tame and obvious, more interested in a kind of simple, generalised silliness than anything which might resemble confrontation with the traits of fascism. If anything, his movie tends to soften and humanise Nazis, depicting them as a bit woolly-headed and awkwardly misguided at worst, bless ’em. Do we really need Nazis to be more relatable? More fluffy?
In a generous cast, the most pleasing surprise is probably Scarlett Johansson, who seems to have finally found the funny bone lacking in the likes of Rough Night or her SNL guest spots. Rosie’s beliefs are coded in early when she shows sympathy for the victims of a public hanging. Still, the Jewish victims are left faceless to spare us the ugliness. The sobering moment mute and impersonal.
It is this tendency to neuter or simplify the emotional journey of the film that comes to significantly hamper it. Waititi’s primary concern is for audience members to have a pleasant time. It’s not an unreasonable objective. But prioritising this over all other concerns wipes out any opportunity for sophistication, or any act of genuine persuasion. None of the film’s characters take the rotten politics of Nazism seriously; painting it as something that doesn’t pose a threat – or even really exist outside of Jojo himself. It’s a film coloured in crayon. To change someone’s mind you need to dig deep into what may be wrong with their worldview. By presenting both sides as basically the same, there’s no real ethical conundrum for Waititi’s little boy, whose enthusiasm seems inexplicable in the mostly harmless German countryside depicted.
Early in the film Jojo is presented with a rabbit to kill, for no rhyme or reason. He can’t do it, so ends up with the nickname that gives the film its title. But why can’t he? Because the rabbit is cute? There’s as much here to suggest that his reasons for opening up to Elsa are the same. The likes of Sam Rockwell, Rebel Wilson and Stephen Merchant on the peripheries do nothing much to change that.
This leaves Jojo Rabbit to survive on bright colours, funny voices and not much else. Hmm.