If you know anything about the premise of this film you sense that it’s likely going to be as hilarious as it is somber. Directed by Taika Waititi, Jojo Rabbit tells the story on a young Nazi boy named Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) and his imaginary friend Adolf Hitler (Taika Waititi) finding out that his mother (Scarlet Johansson) has been hiding a young Jewish girl (Thomasin McKenzie) within the walls of their home. If you know anything about director Taika Waititi’s stories, you’ll expect that Jojo Rabbit will be a heartfelt, compassionate, and somber story. These have always been a constant recurring series of emotions one would feel in a typical Waititi film. This here is no exception.
The first thing that I initially began thinking about when watching Jojo Rabbit is his imaginary friend Hitler (Taika Waititi) – a character that accompanies Jojo throughout the film. How exactly does a character like this work? Well, he acts as a part of Jojo’s conscience – spinning propaganda to coerce Jojo into following what he’s supposed to do for his country. Hitler is indeed Jojo’s friend and he speaks to Jojo from a supportive angle, but ultimately acts as a bad influence when Jojo tries to choose his own path. This here is the central cog within the Jojo Rabbit narrative, as most of this film centered around Jojo’s perception of the world and by other people.
What may be the most bizarre aspect of Jojo Rabbit is that it advertises itself as an “anti-hate satire“. But little of this film truly touches on the concept of actual hate and even less of it is satirical. For one, how can a child truly be considered hateful when they have been indoctrinated by their country to think this way? There’s little attempt to explore what hate even is, where it comes from, or how its different from simply being indoctrinated. Jojo Rabbit, as a film, does not delve any deeper than surface level. This story shows itself to be one about propaganda, not hate; more specifically, how propaganda influences Jojo’s perception of the world and people. We see that Jojo has been given an identity by his country and not yet forged one himself; Jojo Rabbit is about a child overcoming propaganda. If there’s one thing that’s become clearer over the years in Taika Waititi’s films, it’s that he makes up for his lack of narrative depth and thematics with heart and compassion. It’s just, in this specific narrative, it doesn’t quite gel.
On a better note, this story is delivered by strong female performances throughout, specifically by Scarlett Johanson as the mother and Thomasin McKenzie as the young Jewish girl. Waititi’s role as Hitler felt shaky at best and at times almost completely falls flat – but as I’ve already established, this is a film with its highs and lows, so that’s to be expected. Roman Griffin Davis as Jojo hits his marks more often than not, but the cameo-like performances by Rebel Wilson and Stephen Merchant felt weak, unfunny, and often broke tone. Waititi may have the warm charm of Wes Anderson, but there’s quite a lot of work to be done in tonally balancing his cast of characters.
Where visuals are concerned, cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr. successfully uses colour palettes to enhance the main character’s perspective in the world as it transitions throughout the film and helps establish tone. Malaimare also uses storybook-like imagery to capture this fantasy story which is further supported by the immersive production design to keep the film interesting. Michael Giacchino provides a rather happy and upbeat score that frequently undercuts the heavy themes of the film, even if the film brilliantly utilises the song Everybody’s Gotta Live by Love.
Waititi is purporting a loud message that struggles to convince and teasing grand themes that you’ll simply never receive. There’s something a little too on-the-nose about this “anti-hate satire” – in that, it really isn’t a satire, and it really isn’t about hate. Waititi’s message is relatively one-dimensional – simply that love is good, hate is bad – and that’s about it. Jojo Rabbit had potential to be something bolder but instead opted for something a little more cut and dry. It puts effort into smiling in a bleak setting, but falls short in translating a meaningful message – preferring to frolic in the fields instead of exploring any deeper rabbit holes.