Jojo Rabbit, the hero of “Jojo Rabbit,” is not a rabbit. He is a boy, and a fervent little Nazi boy at that. Like many children, he has an imaginary friend, but his is Adolph Hitler. The movie’s a comedy, until it isn’t.
All of which is to say that your reaction to the new film by the frantically talented New Zealand director Taika Waititi will probably be personal and hard to predict in advance. “Jojo Rabbit” premiered on the fall film festival circuit to simultaneous cries of “masterpiece!” and “travesty!,” and there’s no question this exuberantly directed coming-of-age tale – a peppy slapstick drama, if you can get your brain around that – is a sight to see. Whether you want to see it is something you may not be able to decide until halfway through.
Waititi certainly turns the waning days of WWII in a nameless German city into an eccentric movie playpen. Jojo – short for Johannes – is played by 11-year-old Roman Griffin Davis with the timing and expressiveness of a seasoned pro, and his best imaginary pal Adolph is played by the director (who’s half Jewish and half Polynesian, for those keeping score). Jojo adores the Reich and Hitler with the solemn enthusiasm of a child joining a club he doesn’t understand; it’s the adventure of it all that has him keyed up.
Jojo’s father has disappeared off the map fighting the Allies, his older sister has died, and aside from a perfectly rotund fellow conscript played by a wonderful scene stealer named Archie Yates, it’s just the boy and his mother, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson). Well, and Jojo’s Adolph, who’s much sillier than the real one – a loyal chum who only occasionally goes into tirades about the Jews.
The mother, it turn out, has other ideas, which Jojo learns when he finds a Jewish teenage girl, Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), living behind the walls of his sister’s room. Will he tell? If he does, his mother’s life will be in jeopardy. Will he and Elsa become friends? What do you think?
Waititi won a following with inventive, funny independent movies like the vampire mockumentary “What We Do in the Shadows” (2014, co-directed with Jemaine Clement) and the charmingly foul-mouthed “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” (2016) before being hired by Marvel to turn “Thor: Ragnarok” (2017) into a Taika Waititi superhero movie. He’s in the big leagues now and it shows: “Jojo Rabbit” has a depth and breadth of historical production design and period detail that makes it the director’s most ambitious movie to date, not to mention his slickest. Waititi’s out to show he can do it all – make us laugh uproariously before reaching for the Kleenex.
But doing it all runs the risk of doing too much, and more than once the many elements of “Jojo Rabbit” jostle against each other uneasily. The issue isn’t poking fun at Nazis in general and Hitler in particular: Charlie Chaplin (“The Great Dictator”) and Mel Brooks (“The Producers”) have long since broken that ground, and Waititi is an engaging clown who rarely lets us lose sight of the monster behind the daydream.
But as the film progresses and darkens – at one point precipitously – more serious emotions are called into play, some of which hit their mark and some of which veer off into sticky sentimentality. “Jojo Rabbit” zigzags between the farce of a Jungvolk boy’s battalion overseen by a burned-out Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell) and Fraulein Rahm (Rebel Wilson) – both actors mugging happily away – and the specter of real Fascism, real bloodshed, real genocide. The laughs stick in our throats, but not always the way Waititi wants. Jojo’s ideas of what Jews are like, for instance, are so absurdly cartoonish as to be comical, but they’re still not far from actual Nazi propaganda. That’s the point, but it’s a blunt one and aimed without caring where it will land.
Underneath its high style and “dangerous” themes, “Jojo Rabbit” is a conventional movie, and an entertaining one. The acting is terrific across the board, particularly young Davis, Johansson as the playful yet secretive mother, and McKenzie – the discovery of last year’s “Leave No Trace” – as a young woman who’s nobody’s victim.
Given the setting, though, it’s inevitable that a moviegoer will feel the collision of an unstoppable filmmaking style meeting an immovably weighty subject. We’ve been here before, with Roberto Begnigni’s “Life is Beautiful” (1997), a heart-tugging Holocaust comedy that is even more beloved and/or detested than “Jojo Rabbit” stands to be. (How you felt about the earlier movie will probably determine how feel about this one, though.) The difference is that Waititi is the better moviemaker. That just may be what saves him in the end.
Written and directed by Taika Waititi, based on a novel by Christine Leunens. Starring Roman Griffin Davis, Taika Waititi, Scarlett Johansson, Thomasin McKenzie, Sam Rockwell. At Boston Common, Regal Fenway, Kendall Square. 108 minutes. PG-13 (mature thematic content, some disturbing images, violence, language)
Two and a half stars
***1/2Ty Burr can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.