Okay, let’s start with Hitler. Taika Waititi’s new film, Jojo Rabbit, is built around a conceit that’s basically a sick joke dramatized. In Germany, as the end of World War II looms, a ten-year-old named Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) is a nervous participant in the portion of the vast Nazi apparatus set up to indoctrinate impressionable youngsters. Absent a present father and with few peers in his corner, Jojo conjures up an imaginary friend to offer support as he bolsters his confidence to face the daunting tasks ahead of him. In Jojo’s case, the illusory buddy is the führer himself, played as a daffy cheerleader by Waititi. Taking the twentieth century’s vilest perpetrator of crimes against humanity and diminishing him to a dopey, fanciful figure in a light satire smacks of empty outrageousness, the sort of choice that is meant to set audiences tittering out of discomfort and spawn attention-hungry think pieces.
To Waititi’s immense credit — and, I’ll admit, my surprise — I never found the Hitler-as-comic-compatriot aspect of Jojo Rabbit to be exploitative or cruelly callous. Partially, this is because Waititi’s prevailing thesis is so deeply humane. (It helps that Waititi’s personal heritage — born of a Maori father and a Jewish mother — makes the choice of casting himself as Hitler into targeted rebellion, a delighted act of devious mockery.) Rather than lazy provocation, Hitler’s imagined presence serves a real narrative purpose, both in illustrating the need inside of Jojo and depicting how distant his perception lies from the grotesque truths of the fascist government to which he offers his pledges patriotic allegiance. In the crucial first few scenes of Jojo interacting with Adolf, chracter is built and meaning is added by the choice.
As the film goes on, the presence of the Hitler imaginary friend transforms into a gimmick and then a nuisance. The dialogues between boy and figment detach from Jojo’s psychology. They are no longer tied to his inner needs and his increasingly conflicted feelings. But Waititi has committed to the premise, and so Hitler keeps slipping into scenes, becoming more cartoonish with every appearance. The tactic still doesn’t lapse into offensiveness. Instead, it becomes something far more dire; it’s clownishly inconsequential.
The good news is that the rest of the film around the obvious hook becomes stronger as it goes, finding novel new angles in the rendering of war through a child’s eyes, a trope that I would have guessed was played out. Largely due to Davis’s absolutely marvelous performance as Jojo the approach is fully enlivened. Davis pivots gracefully between crackerjack comedy and a pathos built on a piercing vulnerability. He brings clarity and consistency to Jojo’s precarious attempts to figure out the world around him, his unskilled assertions of feigned bravado playing with a tender poignancy. Waititi careens freely between farce and wry melancholy. The latter quality serves him better, in part because there are stronger performances on that side of the story, especially by Thomasin McKenzie and Scarlett Johansson, the latter perhaps the loosest she’s ever been onscreen. That noted, I must add that Archie Yates is a scene-stealing comic dynamo as Jojo’s one flesh-and-blood friend.
There’s a messiness to Jojo Rabbit, but there’s also warmth and, it seems, pure, kind-hearted attention. It’s oddly heartening that Waititi took the newfound clout he earned with Thor: Ragnarok and leveraged it toward this sort of risky, iconoclastic project. It’s one thing when swelled with newfound power to climb up to the highest of wires; it’s far more impressive when the roof of the big top is grazing the hair on your head to, as Waititi does here, call for the nets to be removed before taking the first step.