Taika Waititi's comedy about a budding young Nazi exhausts its satire early
Set in the last year of World War II in a quaint little town in either Austria or Germany, 10-year-old Johannes (Roman Griffin Davis) is pumped for a weekend with a Hitler Youth training camp. The adults leading the camp are played by Sam Rockwell, Rebel Wilson and Alfie Allen.
During one of the training tasks, Jojo is picked to snap a rabbit’s head. When he’s unable to do so, his seniors jeer and lead a chant of "Jojo rabbit". In order to prove he’s not a timid rabbit but a cunning survivor, Jojo inadvisably grabs a grenade and flings it. The result is not pretty. Jojo is left scarred, limping and unfit for further training, unlike his best-friend Yorki (Archie Yates, adorable) who continues to be indoctrinated in the art of killing.
Confined to rest and small tasks, a restless Jojo discovers that his mother Rosie is sheltering a Jewish teenager (Thomasin McKenzie) in a secret space in their home. Jojo and Rosie (an under-utilised Scarlett Johannson) stand at opposite ends of the political spectrum – he’s a rabid Nazi loyalist who gets stupid advice from his imaginary friend Adolf (Taika Waititi). As his only present family member, Rosie is Jojo’s guardian and entertainer and also a member of the resistance.
Jojo swings from outrage to finding an unexpected companion in Elsa. Inadvertently, they also balm each other’s loneliness.
Elsa also becomes his source of information on tricks for identifying Jews. When he asks Elsa to describe Jews, she says, “We are like you, but human." You can almost imagine Waititi taking a beat, waiting for the applause.
Waititi touches a chord when he focusses on brainwashing of children and blind fanaticism. He places plot points like clues in a script adapted from Christine Leunens’s novel Caging Skies. When an ensemble cast features Wilson, you can be assured that there is little subtlety or gravitas in the thematic exploration. What you get is an unmoving satire on the Nazi regime with writer-director Waititi excitedly playing Adolf.
If the Nazis and Hitler are somehow supposed to reflect the despots of the present, the metaphor is way past its use-by date. The bad guys and their manipulations need an update.
If it wasn’t for the cute little kids dressed in child-size Nazi uniforms, a delightful performance by Davis and the loving art direction (very Wes Anderson), this Life is Beautiful meets Anne Frank’s Diary would have at best been a one-trick pony that exhausts the satire early on and delivers this top joke: