New Zealand filmmaker Taika Waititi has garnered cult status and critical acclaim with his distinctive style of madcap comedy. The controversial premise of his latest feature Jojo Rabbit has caused quite the stir as the Jewish auteur tackles the topic of Nazism. Based on the novel Caging Skies by Christine Leunens, the WWII story sees German boy Johannes (Roman Griffin Davis) enrol in a Hitler Youth training camp run by Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell) and his team of instructors. Meanwhile, Johannes’s mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) is harbouring Jewish girl Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) in their house, presenting a moral dilemma for the young protagonist which he ponders with Adolf (Taika Waititi), his dictatorial imaginary friend.
Hilarity ensues right from the beginning as the opening act smartly sets the scene for what’s to come. Borrowing from Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, the training camp scenes are well constructed. The early gags have brilliant shock value and by pairing this segment with the introduction of Waititi’s slapstick interpretation of Hitler, the film gets off to a flying start. However, the jokes wear thin as the plot thickens and the initial mockery never really develops into the cutting political satire it so desperately strives for. What’s more problematic is the saccharine sledgehammer of sentimentality that plummets into the narrative midway through, creating a wildly uneven tone that makes it difficult to empathise with any of the characters.
When the script plays to its strengths, it works very well, and some of the comic actors thrive with the dark material. Sam Rockwell follows up his Oscar-winning turn with another terrific prejudicial performance. He, Rebel Wilson, and Stephen Merchant are on fine form and are the standouts from the cast, all three excelling in their villainous roles.
Strangely, it’s Waititi himself who is the weak link. His first appearance is admittedly amusing, but he quickly becomes a one-trick-Nazi, and it’s a shame Johannes imagination remains so vivid by the end. If Jojo Rabbit had stuck to its comedic guns, it might’ve succeeded. Instead, it’s a messy misfire that masquerades as a warm anti-hate story but suffers greatly from its selective sense of self-importance.