Viewers familiar with the antic wit of Taika Waititi — from such comedies as “What We Do in the Shadows,” “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” and “Thor: Ragnarok” — might wonder what he will next pull out of his hat. The answer, “Jojo Rabbit,” might be a trick for the ages.
A sprightly, attractively composed coming-of-age comedy set in World War II Germany, “Jojo Rabbit” is an audacious high-wire act: a satire in which a buffoonish Adolf Hitler delivers some of the funniest moments; a wrenchingly tender portrait of a mother’s love for her son; a lampoon of the most destructive ideological forces that still threaten society and — perhaps most powerfully — an improbably affecting chronicle of moral evolution.
Refracted through the childlike perspective of its alternately sweet and appalling 10-year-old protagonist, the horrors of Germany under Hitler’s Reich aren’t defanged as much as defenestrated: They go flying out the windows of Waititi’s dollhouse world as quickly and decisively as the film’s copious sight gags, punchlines and Mel Brooksian “Heil, Hitler” bits.
At the center of this fast-moving swirl is young Jojo Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis), who has grown up under Hitler’s rule and whose fondest goal in life is to join the Hitler Youth. Finally old enough to realize his dream — and egged on by his imaginary friend Hitler, played by Waititi as part tinpot hothead, part bestie — he enthusiastically joins the ranks of true believers at a training camp run by Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell) and Fraulein Rahm (Rebel Wilson). “Germany is the most advanced civilization in the history of the world,” Rahm cries at one point. “Now let’s go burn some books.”
Fish in a barrel, right? But as viewers settle into “Jojo Rabbit’s” fanciful paste-pot pastiche, it’s clear that Waititi has more on his mind than just taking the mickey out of a bunch of dumb Nazis. (Although, make no mistake, he never shies away from a chance to do so.) Jojo lives at home with his mother, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson), whose husband is away fighting in Italy; although the boy is convinced his father is a hero of the Reich, it’s obvious that the truth is more complicated. As Rosie and Jojo stroll through town one day and happen upon the hanging corpses of dissidents, he asks her what they did. “What they could,” she replies quietly.
It’s just this balance between outrageous comedy and moments of more mournful reflection that gives “Jojo Rabbit” its momentum and higher purpose. Set to an anachronistic pop soundtrack and an eye-poppingly attractive production design that would be right at home in a Wes Anderson movie, this is a film that dares you not to enjoy its material pleasures, even as you wonder if you should be laughing quite so hard at the jokes. When Hitler and Jojo are hanging out in the boy’s bedroom, they talk like kids out of “Superbad” (“Heil me, man!”). Silly, bouncy and jam-packed with the most offensive anti-Semitic tropes this side of “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” “Jojo Rabbit” is a constant bait-and-switch, as its naive young hero succumbs with gung-ho goofiness to the unspeakable costs of blind loyalty and then, gradually, begins to snap out of his nation’s mass psychosis (or, in his case, the temporary insanity of early adolescence).
Although “The Producers” is an obvious inspiration for “Jojo Rabbit” — some of the film’s detractors call it a feature-length version of “Springtime for Hitler” — as well as Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator” and Ernst Lubitsch’s “To Be or Not to Be,” it has more recent referents as well, particularly the brilliant absurdist political satires of Armando Iannucci. Waititi tiptoes the same fine line as Iannucci, deflating his most toxic characters with ridicule, but never making them merely fatuous or ignoring the shattering consequences of their beliefs. The horrors that Jojo applauds so enthusiastically aren’t any less grievous for being refracted through his imagination. If anything, that conceit underlines the cynicism of the forces that have capitalized on his naivete.
Waititi has assembled a marvelous cast to walk this cockamamie high-wire along with him: Johansson delivers one of her finest performances as a mother gamely believing that her son will come to his senses. Rockwell, Wilson and Stephen Merchant are hilarious as various Nazi apparatchiks. But it’s Davis, as well as Thomasin McKenzie and the scene-stealing Archie Yates — each playing a friend Jojo makes in his travels — who impress the most. Focused, disciplined and very, very funny, these gifted young actors do a superb job of conveying both the ruthless humor and pathos of Waititi’s enterprise.
As for whether it works, or is even worth doing, every viewer’s mileage will vary. While some may believe that the realities of the Holocaust — and its all-too-present echoes throughout the world today — aren’t appropriate for such a playful, too-clever-by-half vernacular, others will be both entertained and moved by a film that invents a devilishly difficult needle, then threads it with style and, most importantly, meaning. “Jojo Rabbit” may have fun puncturing demagoguery and fanaticism, but it’s deadly serious when it comes to the heart, and its ability to turn.