Jojo Rabbit’s greatest asset is its premise and its greatest weakness is a failure to commit. The fact of its rating, PG-13, is already enough to know that the film is going to pull its punches. One doesn’t call their film an anti-hate satire without some kind of moralist aspiration, but making that same film available to the widest possible audience undercuts that same aspiration, like Waititi wants to make a point but with a respectable box office gross. For example, Jojo’s last name is Betzler, and he’s given the moniker of Rabbit when he refuses to strangle one at the prodding of cruel older boys. The film that was committed to showing how a lifetime of living under Nazi rule would affect children would then have a similarly cherubic boy blithely strangle the rabbit, but instead, the bullies, who the viewer’s already set up to hate, do it themselves. There’s a refusal here to have the clownish characters cross over into cruelty: in fact, all the cruelty in the film is carried out offscreen, signifying an unwillingness to derive laughs and gasps from the same character and in turn dumbing down the entire project.
The temptation is to dismiss Jojo Rabbit for daring to suggest Not All Nazi’s, but the film provides itself a conceivable out in the choice to set the film so close to the war’s end. With Americans closing in from one side and Soviets on the other, the propaganda machine is well-cracked and plenty of Germans surely saw the writing on the wall. Sam Rockwell plays the Hitler Youth commandant, transferred from the front to his great displeasure. The film characterizes him as a charismatic leader for his charges but abandons the part of him that treats this assignment as a demotion, especially when he’s provided a handy way to prove his worth. There’s a fatalistic character in there somewhere who might convince as an officer who just doesn’t want to see Germany suffer any more than it has to, even if that means defeat, but again, what’s the value of sympathizing with a Nazi who did enough to rise through the ranks by 1945?
Rockwell’s boss’ boss’ boss’ boss is the film’s most provocative swing, or it would be without a decade-plus of defanging Downfall memes. Waititi’s Hitler is the Uncle Dolph version who played with secretaries’ children and danced a jig at the fall of Paris, only from the outlook of a 12-year-old who’s mentally replacing a missing, likely-dead father. At the same time, Jojo has seen the speeches and internalized the gesticulations, so those are within imaginary Hitler, too. This is a fair depiction in that it understands both the absurdity of Hitler and that it didn’t stop him from enrapturing a nation. There’s a necessary scene where he stops being funny, and the film would work even less without it.
At its core, Jojo Rabbit is an adaptation of a New Yorker or equivalent article about a mother realizing her son is being red-pilled. The cliché is that pushing back against a child’s firmly held beliefs will only entrench them further, and Rosie’s dilemma is compounded by an inability to push back at all. The way the film tiptoes around her displeasure with the war and the regime is by turns clumsy and wonderfully interpretive. When she makes Jojo look at the latest batch of executed dissidents, is she reminding him of the swift justice of their strong leaders or the still-visible humanity of those who bravely refuse to submit? When she’s directly making her anti-Nazi case to Jojo, however, these scenes beggar belief. After twelve years, the Nazi’s have completely rewritten morality and subjugated the family to the state, making it impossible for someone like Jojo to be able to hear dissent even from his mom. Additionally, the film makes Rosie frivolous and reckless with her meager pushback against the Nazi’s. She risks everything with anything but total allegiance, and, excepting her sheltering of Elsa, she’s made into the equivalent of a slacktivist, endangering hers and Jojo’s and Elsa’s life for nothing.
Even still, there’s something in Jojo Rabbit that keeps the viewer hopeful that some amount of profundity will trickle down. Some of that is residual appreciation for Wes Anderson, specifically Grand Budapest Hotel, which this film shares an era with. Waititi is in open imitation here, to the point of including pop songs in foreign languages and characters that are prone to dance breaks. Some goodwill is also generated by goodwill towards Waititi himself, a director with a growing track record of highly watchable romps through less fraught territory. Griffiths is a charming kid who nails the big moments, and the supporting cast is full of comedic heavy-hitters. Waititi does some base-level contradictory characterization (cherubic Nazi, violent victim, polite Gestapo) that’s shallow but works in the moment. This film about committed Nazis is likable at its core, if only it had more depth.
It all comes down to tone. Waititi is well-suited to make a historical version of his What We Do in the Shadows, as he can clearly make murderous vampires into figures of fun and even pathos. Jojo Rabbit has no problem with the everyday normalcy of being a kid in Nazi Germany, but the film simply cannot handle the tone of what that actually means at this specific point in history i.e. becoming a suicide bomber in a doomed war effort. Jojo’s clumsy friend Yorki (Archie Yates) can’t clumsily blow up a shop with an RPG right before Wilson’s character sends her tiny charges to the front, off-screen of course. It just doesn’t work. Huckleberry Finn is the obvious comparison, wherein a boy in a society that incentivizes evil becomes good by being bad. His moral imagination only extends to obeying and disobeying rules, not the rightness of the rules themselves. This isn’t even on that level, as it takes the easiest path of a preternaturally good boy with a kind mother acting into his most moral self. How can one spend any amount of time in Nazi Germany and get anywhere near trite ‘all people have good in them’ disposability? C