It goes without saying that “Jojo Rabbit” shouldn’t work. A coming-of-age comedy whose hero is a 10-year-old German boy during World War II who wants to grow up to be a Nazi?
Adolph Hitler as comic relief?
That’s pretty much a recipe for disaster at a time when there’s nothing funny about the rise of neo-Nazism around the world.
But here’s the thing about the New Zealand director Taika Waititi, whose previous films include “Hunt for the Wilderpeople,” “What We Do in the Shadows” and “Thor: Ragnarok”: He knows how to take things that shouldn’t work and make them work.
“Jojo Rabbit,” which had its world premiere on Sunday at the Toronto International Film Festival, takes this risky premise and delivers a twisted piece of grandly entertaining provocation. It might be harder to get away with Hitler jokes now than when Mel Brooks did it in “The Producers” 50 years ago, but damned if Waititi doesn’t pull it off in a way that should help the Fox Searchlight production win over moviegoers.
“Jojo Rabbit” starts with an extended and frenetic scene about the right way to say “Heil Hitler,” and then gleefully jumps into the Beatles’ German-language version of “I Want to Hold Your Hand.”
The time is the final year of the war, the setting a town in Germany where 10-year-old Jojo Betzler (a wonderful Roman Griffin Davis) wants nothing more than to be a good little Nazi. But he’s a scared little kid who earned the nickname “Jojo Rabbit” when he refused to kill a rabbit at Nazi training camp. So he creates an imaginary friend: a goofy Adolph Hitler (played by Waititi himself) who encourages the boy’s worst impulses.
The local Nazis are played by Sam Rockwell, Alfie Allen, Rebel Wilson and Stephen Merchant, among others, and they’re a collection of malcontents who’d like to be threatening but have a hard time being much more than silly. Painting Nazis as idiotic goofballs probably hasn’t been a good idea since “Hogan’s Heroes” went off the air, but Waititi and his cast do it with such glee that it’s hard to resist.
But there’s more going on here than garden-variety Nazi-mocking. Jojo’s mother, Rosie, played by Scarlett Johansson, is clearly less devoted to the Fatherland than her son, who soon discovers that Mom is hiding a teenage Jewish girl behind a panel in one of the walls of the house.
Jojo has been indoctrinated to believe that Jews have scales and horns and whatnot, so Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), the assured young woman living behind the wall, comes as a shock to him. And a dangerous shock, at that – she keeps stealing the knives that he’s planning to use to kill her.
The joke that underlies much of the film – Nazis are dolts, and isn’t it fun to watch as their world crumbles around them and they lose the war? – feels in danger of running out of steam for some of the film. But there’s real heart in “Jojo Rabbit,” too. This is a dark satire that finds a way to make a case for understanding. As circumstances slowly chip away at Jojo’s hate-driven worldview, the black comedy finds room for some genuinely touching moments.
“You’re not a Nazi, Jojo,” says Elsa at one point. “You’re a 10-year-old boy who likes dressing up in a funny uniform.” By the time Allied troops converge on the city and we get through a huge, slow-motion battle scene, even Jojo and his pal Yorki realize they’re on the wrong side. “It’s definitely not a good time to be a Nazi,” says Yorki.
But somehow, Taika Waititi may have made this a good time for a Nazi comedy. Go figure.