By now, we can hardly be surprised—let alone moved—by a story about someone learning that racism is bad. Likewise, to teach this lesson against the backdrop of the Second World War, arguably at the expense of the Jewish victims that suffered it, is a tired trope. Still, it is difficult to underestimate the charm of filmmaker Taika Waititi, whose new film Jojo Rabbit is poised between the Thor movies he’s made and is making for the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
The first of those, 2017’s Ragnarok, was not where the kiwi director debuted his comedic chops, but the momentum surely landed him the resources to get Jojo, an old passion project of his, produced and out in wide release. Caging Skies, the novel which Jojo is loosely based on, was a recommendation from Waititi’s mother years before it materialized as a feature script, but the premise was too intriguing for Taika to ignore: Johannes or “Jojo” a 10-year-old Hitler fanatic, is forced to reconsider his worldview when he discovers and befriends Elsa, a young woman being harboured by Jo’s mom. The stakes of coming-of-age stories are rarely so high, considering the risks being taken and the potential consequences for Jojo and his family, but the urgency of Jojo’s situation is what renders his story so impactful.
It’s interesting when the powers at Disneygive quirky indie filmmakers the helm of battle-tested franchises, but less surprising when the industry capitalizes on the successful results. Such blessings breathe life into movies that might never have been made otherwise, but still come at a cost. In this case, the cost was making sure the most marketable component of the film at stake was a caricature of Hitler (played by Waititi himself).
That joke is Jojo Rabbit’s biggest risk and downfall, but the tenderness of the film is strong enough to salvage its missteps. It isn’t that Waititi—whose eagerness to get the movie made forced him into the Hitler costume at the studio’s demand—lacks the comedic prowess to land the humour. The unsettling reality is that at some point we have to question whether the caricature, in this case a figment of the 10-year-old protagonist’s (Roman Griffin Davis) imagination, is the target of the joke.
The satire is only successful as long as the joke is at Hitler’s expense, and unfortunately there’s a fine line between how ridiculous and silly the racism is, and how much it plays as material for an unenlightened audience to pocket. There’s no question that the film has its priorities straight: This is a story about overcoming blind intolerance, but the timeliness of Jojo Rabbit’s concern makes it impossible to ignore that the lesson is aimed at those who still seem to need it. When the movie tries to make fun of that ignorance, it loses sight of the fact that it’s handing out ammunition.
It is surprising, then, that what keeps Jojo Rabbit from tripping on that irony isn’t the comedic skill-set of Waititi or his cast, but rather how careful he is when taking things seriously. The audience’s silence during the film’s most tragic moments plays louder than the laughter during its most silly, and that’s managed by impressive nuances one might not expect from this filmmaker. Jojo is more capable of hatred than he is of tying his shoes, but the comedic effect of a racist kid is far less substantial and meaningful than his journey to tolerance, and that’s to Waititi’s directorial merits. While the film’s veneer is hand-in-hand with any given Wes Anderson film, the lack of visual originality is redeemed by Waititi’s focus. Where Anderson’s aesthetic exists for its own sake, Waititi makes sure that we’re familiar enough with certain details that simply seeing a pair of shoes becomes more poignant than any satire could be. The ways in which those choices parallel Jojo’s growth are more powerful that the jokes at play. The performances, especially by Griffin Davis and Thomasin McKenzie, met with Waititi’s diligent eye, are the film’s true feat. They save Jojo Rabbit from being too careless.
The success of this filmisn’t in its satire. It operates best when the war is off-screen, when the humour is more circumstantial than ironic, and when the characters are seeing and hearing each other in the way Waititi would have us do. The film manages to surprise and move after all, despite the moments that it trips on its untied laces.