A World War II satire that follows a lonely German boy named Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) whose world view is turned upside down when he discovers his single mother (Scarlett Johansson) is hiding a young Jewish girl (Thomasin McKenzie) in their attic. Aided only by his idiotic imaginary friend, Adolf Hitler (Taika Waititi), Jojo must confront his blind nationalism.
Look at any of Taika Waititi's work and you can tell that as well as having a sharp command of comedy, there's a real intelligence to how he produces it and shapes it into something that becomes memorable. Comedy is, after all, quite disposable. You laugh, you move on, you laugh again. Jokes work from beat to beat, and it's never really sustained. In recent years, dramedies have become a popular topic, but that's often simply trying to put a name on something that can't be readily holed into genre.
'Jojo Rabbit' has something of a similar issue. You could take one part of it and called it a surrealist art film, another part of it as a tender historical drama of German resistance during the reign of the Nazis, yet another part of it as a coming-of-age comedy, and then another part still as an out-and-out comedy.
It doesn't help that Waititi's direction and writing nails every single one of these to a tee, because each of them feel so disparate and disconnected from one another. Just when you think you've got a handle on it, it snaps into a different direction and runs off and away from itself. There are so many breakneck spins in tone throughout 'Jojo Rabbit' that you end up with whiplash by the end of it, not entirely sure of what to make of it and could very well end up being a confusing watch.
The cast assembled, however, approach these varying shifts in tone with skill. Taika Waititi's almost Looney Tunes-inspired Hitler shifts from pathetic cartoon villain to terrifying demagogue in one scene, while Sam Rockwell's ne'er-do-well Nazi officer offers up a moment of humanity at a time when you're all but certain you're supposed to hate them. There are moments in 'Jojo Rabbit' where you're forced to confront what you live with in hatred and how you ultimately resolve it. It's big, meaty stuff, and Waititi's skill in writing and directing is that it never feels like it burdens you with it all.
The soundtrack is cheerful and that it plays out with David Bowie's 'Heroes' auf deutsch is a nice touch. Likewise, the sharp colours and the lush scenery plays into the fairytale qualities of the story and the innocence of youth slowly receding into the distance. More than anything, what you're left with after 'Jojo Rabbit' is a sense that the best has been made of a truly difficult story to try and capture. The jarring shift in tones aside, there's a real sense of good-hearted humour and a boldness to it that is refreshing, even if it doesn't work all of the time.