Every decade or so, some ballyhooed film comes out that dares to take a comic or at least seriocomic look at the Third Reich, from the coal-black Seven Beauties to the ingratiating, Oscar-winning, but quickly shunned Life Is Beautiful. Jojo Rabbit falls somewhere between the two: offbeat but sentimental, satirical but earnest, it's a crowd-pleaser that doesn't really linger.
Taking place in an unnamed German city during the final months of World War II, Jojo Rabbit's titular protagonist is a ten-year-old boy who dreams of joining the Hitler Youth even as the desperate German Army starts conscripting old men and teenage boys to fight its losing battle. Der Führer (played by writer/director Waititi) is, in fact, Jojo's imaginary friend, a goofball cheerleader for Jojo's naive ambitions. The plot kicks in when a housebound Jojo discovers a Jewish girl hiding behind a wall upstairs: Jojo's mother (Scarlett Johansson) is responsible, but he doesn't know that. Fearing the repercussions on his family, Jojo decides to keep quiet about the girl, and slowly befriends her during his long, lonely days at home.
What happens after that is ultimately predictable stuff, but Waititi's screenplay, based on Christine Leunens's ultra-serious novel Caging Skies, keeps things afloat with a blend of absurdist comedy and tender coming-of-age drama. (The film is remarkably accurate at depicting the world view of a ten-year-old boy.) Thomasin McKenzie plays her hideaway character as scrappy and independent – she's not the generically suffering Jewish girl you see in most Holocaust movies. And Johansson is nicely spirited as Jojo's plucky single mom. In fact the entire sauerkraut-accented cast, including Sam Rockwell, Rebel Wilson, and Stephen Merchant as Reich members, is on point, but I must single out the talents of young newcomer Roman Griffin Davis as Jojo. He is perfect in the part.
On the one hand, Jojo Rabbit is solid entertainment, with a tender heart and a look that infuses Fatherland romanticism with Wes Anderson quirk. On the other hand, it's just a little too pat. Waititi has a great eye and ear for comedy, and he's not afraid to venture into darker territory, but in the end his sensibilities are mainstream and safe. Compared to the harrowing Seven Beauties, which hints at the savage postwar lives that its traumatized characters are about to face, Jojo Rabbit wants us to think that everything's going to be just ducky, even as it essentially leaves its young heroes high and dry.