DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Screenwriter and director Taika Waititi earned a cult following with comedies like "What We Do In The Shadows" and "Hunt For The Wilderpeople." Then he directed the hit Marvel superhero movie "Thor: Ragnarok." His new film, "Jojo Rabbit," is a satire set in Nazi Germany and features Scarlett Johansson, Sam Rockwell, Rebel Wilson and Waititi himself playing an imaginary version of Hitler. Waititi is from New Zealand. His father's side of the family is indigenous Maori. His mother's side is Jewish. Our film critic Justin Chang has this review.
JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: At a time when anti-Semitism and white supremacy are on the rise globally, I'm hardly opposed to the idea of a movie like "Jojo Rabbit." The posters are billing it as an anti-hate satire, a flippant sendup of Nazi Germany that also pushes a message of love and tolerance. But for all its good intentions, I found the movie painfully one-note as comedy, bogus and manipulative as drama, with an archly whimsical visual style that feels like imitation Wes Anderson.
It's the self-congratulation that rankles me most of all. "Jojo Rabbit" is so enamored of its alleged audacity that it doesn't realize how timid and conventional it is. The story, liberally adapted from Christine Leunens' novel "Caging Skies," shows us the final days of World War II through the eyes of a 10-year-old German boy, Jojo Betzler, who dreams of fighting for his country and making Hitler proud.
Jojo is played by Roman Griffin Davis, a newcomer of such infectious charm that he quickly wins you over, even when Jojo starts spewing vile, anti-Semitic nonsense. Sure, he's been severely indoctrinated, but look at what a good, adorable kid he really is, the movie seems to be saying.
At Hitler Youth Camp, when his counselors ordered him to kill a rabbit with his bare hands, Jojo proves too gentle a soul to go through with it. And from that day forth, everyone mocks him by calling him Jojo rabbit. He opens up about this humiliation to his imaginary friend, who takes the form of none other than Adolf Hitler, played by the movie's writer and director, Taika Waititi.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JOJO RABBIT")
TAIKA WAITITI: (As Adolf) Poor Jojo. What's wrong, little man?
ROMAN GRIFFIN DAVIS: (As Jojo) Hi, Adolf.
WAITITI: (As Adolf) Want to tell me about that rabbit incident? What was all that about?
DAVIS: (As Jojo) They wanted me to kill it. I'm sorry. I couldn't.
WAITITI: (As Adolf) Don't worry about it. I couldn't care less.
DAVIS: (As Jojo) But now they call me a scared rabbit.
WAITITI: (As Adolf) Let them say whatever they want. People used to say a lot of nasty things about me. Oh, this guy's a lunatic. Oh, look at that psycho. He's going to get us all killed. I'll let you in on a little secret. The rabbit is no coward. The humble, little bunny faces a dangerous world every day, hunting carrots for his family, for his country. My empire will be full of all animals - lions, giraffes, zebras, rhinoceroses, octopuses, rhinoctopuses (ph), even the mighty rabbit. Cigarette?
DAVIS: (As Jojo) Oh, no, thanks. I don't smoke.
WAITITI: (As Adolf) Let me give you some really good advice. Be the rabbit. The humble bunny can outwit all of his enemies. He's brave and sneaky and strong. Be the rabbit.
CHANG: You can appreciate the impishness of having Waititi take on the role of history's greatest monster. As the director himself said in a tweet, what better way to insult Hitler than having him portrayed by a Polynesian Jew? And while some have lambasted the movie for making comic light of Nazism, there is, in fact, a grand and honorable cinematic tradition of Hitler mockery, from "The Great Dictator" and "To Be Or Not To Be" to "The Producers" with its immortal "Springtime For Hitler" sequences. I wish "Jojo Rabbit" were worthy of their company.
Waititi's Hitler isn't offensive or outrageous. He's a slapdash, one-joke buffoon with barely enough comic dimensions to pad out a "Saturday Night Live" sketch. There's a similarly hit-and-miss feel to the other Nazi caricatures in Jojo's midst, like the hangdog Hitler Youth Camp counselor played by Sam Rockwell or his zealous assistant played by the usually hilarious Rebel Wilson. If a lot of the humor feels tacked on, that's because it's part of the movie's bait-and-switch.
"Jojo Rabbit" isn't much of a comedy. It's more like a tear-jerker pretending to be a comedy. The story's true dramatic agenda becomes clear when Jojo stumbles on a Jewish teenager named Elsa hiding in a secret room in his house. He's both scared and intrigued by Elsa. And a barbed but eye-opening friendship begins.
Elsa is played by Thomasin McKenzie, the New Zealand-born actress who gave a wonderful performance last year in the drama "Leave No Trace." She's very good here as a tough-minded survivor who forcefully dismantles every cruel lie that Jojo has been fed about the Jews. Scarlett Johansson is good, too, as Jojo's mother, who is sheltering Elsa and clearly isn't the loyal servant of the Third Reich she appears to be.
But all the goodwill generated by these characters is ultimately undone by an emotional third act twist that's been engineered to vacate your tear ducts. I found it so ghastly in its calculation that for the first time in this unfunny comedy, I almost burst out laughing.
But "Jojo Rabbit" has its fans. It recently won the People's Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival, a prize that has often heralded the future winner of the Oscar for best picture. That's what happened last year with "Green Book." And as different as the two movies are in form and subject, the comparisons are not entirely unfounded. Both movies use slick, crowd-pleasing comedy to confront the injustices of the past and leave you feeling better about the injustices of the present.
"Jojo Rabbit" bills itself as a provocation. But what it's really selling is reassurance, a kid's perspective on war that treats the viewer like a child.
DAVIES: Justin Chang is a film critic for The LA Times. On Monday's show, our guest will be Holly George Warren, author of a new biography of Janis Joplin, the uncompromising, barrier-breaking female rock star. She says Joplin made it all look effortless, though it was very hard work. George Warren is also the co-author of "The Road To Woodstock." Hope you can join us.
FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Sam Briger. Our engineer is Charlie Kaier, with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.