Jojo Rabbit is a lot of things — an effective satire isn’t one of them

Taika Waititi’s WWII comedy (and supposed “anti-hate” satire) is shooting at fish in a barrel, but even that’s not enough to sink it completely.

One of the much-mocked taglines for Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit is “an anti-hate satire.” It was mocked for its kind of cheeky, bleeding-heart sentiment, but in reality it should be mocked because I don’t think what Jojo Rabbit does is satire at all. That’s not necessarily a knock on any film — no film has to be a satire — but Jojo Rabbit positions itself as a satire positively demolishing the Third Reich (which, at this point, is like shooting fish in a barrel) and ultimately comes across as more of a mushy magical realism comedy than a movie with anything to say. Ultimately, Jojo Rabbit’s fundamental problem (and it isn’t a fatal one) is that it has a conviction in the importance of what it’s saying that is in no way matched by what it’s actually saying. For all of its purported skewering of Nazis, Jojo Rabbit isn’t really about Hitler and Nazis specifically, even if it does go out of its way to assure us that Nazis are indeed very bad and silly.

It’s not hard to trace why Waititi (who is of mixed Jewish/Maori descent) would want to make this film, not just in terms of heritage and personal identity, but in terms of what’s happening in the world now. The silly Nazis of Jojo Rabbit, however, have nothing to with 2019. With their love of rules and pageantry and their compulsion to heil everyone, they’re just a fussy cartoon version straight out of 1940s propaganda videos. To be honest, whatever sticking it to Hitler Waititi is doing here is more or less a variation on the scene in Little Nicky where he’s shown in hell, having a pineapple jammed up his ass for all eternity. It’s purely iconographic subversion, if it even subverts anything at all — a 12-year-old wearing a Dead Kennedys t-shirt in 2019.

That its satire is toothless and generally ineffective somehow doesn’t even completely sink Jojo Rabbit. It’s a testament to Waititi’s talent and general winsome sense of humour that a movie this sloppily calculated and ideologically passive is actually a pretty touching and humorous movie. More aligned, in some strange way, with European magical realism films than present-day comedy (it reminds me abstractly of The Tin Drum, though I suspect this comparison might not stand up to much scrutiny), it’s a pretty good movie about how children cling to outside influences to try and make sense of trauma at home… but a pretty bad movie about WWII and fascism.

Ten-year-old Jojo Bentzler (Roman Griffin Davis) lives in Nazi Germany with his mother (Scarlett Johansson) while his father is, Jojo is told, off fighting with the Nazis. Jojo is extremely patriotic and obsessed with the Nazi Party, dreaming above all else to join its ranks and defend Germany from the Jewish menace. Jojo loves the Nazis so much that he’s made Adolf Hitler (Waititi) his imaginary best friend, a fact that he rather boldly states to his flesh-and-bone BFF Yorki (Archie Yates). 

Jojo proves to be a die-hard in ideas only. His time with a local chapter of the Hitler Youth run by a disgraced Captain (Sam Rockwell) sees young Jojo much more sensitive and conflict-averse than his ideology suggests. Nevertheless, he remains steadfast in his hatred of Jews until he discovers that a young Jewish woman named Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) is hiding in the walls of his late sister’s bedroom. At first, of course, he is repulsed, but acknowledging her presence to the outside world would be ratting out his mother, and soon he finds himself growing closer and closer to Elsa, which in turn starts to affect his blind adherence to the party line… not to mention his relationship with Hitler.

Jojo Rabbit is at its best when it’s just a little bit absurd, like Jojo’s recurring run-ins with Yorki, who keeps becoming more and more involved with combat despite being a pudgy 11-year-old who always makes time for hugs or his relationship with Elsa, which is first built around Elsa completely leaning into Jojo’s beliefs that Jews have horns and scales. When Jojo Rabbit exists in a slightly elevated reality, it’s actually a rather touching film about childhood and the way children make worlds for themselves. If we’re not supposed to take anything that happens here at pure face value but rather as the slightly heightened perception of a child on the “wrong side” of one of history’s most traumatic conflicts, then all the stuff with Hitler tips way too far in the other direction. It feels like Waititi can’t quite marry his desire to make a film that verges on the European arthouse meditation (although overt Wes Anderson worship abounds, from precious shot-framing to incongruous German-language versions of pop hits) and his apparently even stronger and sketch comedy-adjacent desire to point out that goose-stepping Germans are so very silly.

Jojo Rabbit’s die-hard detractors have pointed to a specific scene in the film as the sort of crux of everything that’s wrong with the premise. In it, Elsa tells Jojo that he’s not a Nazi — that he may love Hitler and love the iconography of the party and thinks that he hates Jews, but deep down inside, he’s not one of them. For many (predominantly American) viewers, this smacks of “good people on both sides” -ism; it’s an apology for all of the MAGA chuds who are just lost little lambs, if you believe that’s the analogy. The problem isn’t that the reading is wrong, it’s that it assumes that that moment actually takes place in a so-called anti-hate satire. To me, the scene feels more like the logical throughline of a movie about a kid who clings to iconography and clear lines in the sand at a time of great turmoil — which is really all that Jojo Rabbit needed to be. ■

Jojo Rabbit opens in theatres on Friday, Nov. 1. Watch the trailer here: