According to a child psychologist cited in a recent article in The Atlantic, “little boys’ imaginary friends are frequently characters who are more competent than they are, such as superheroes or beings with powers.” That more or less describes the case of 10-year-old Johannes (Roman Griffin Davis), who has dreamed up a powerful pal to boost his confidence at anxious moments, always ready with a fist pump or a shout of “you got this!” Perfectly normal, and even kind of adorable, even though Johannes’s imaginary friend is Adolf Hitler.
The make-believe Hitler is somehow both the most outlandish and the most realistic thing about “Jojo Rabbit,” Taika Waititi’s new film. Based on the novel “Caging Skies” by Christine Leunens — and featuring Waititi himself as Johannes’s goofball fantasy-Führer — the movie filters the banality and evil of the Third Reich through the consciousness of a smart, sensitive, basically ordinary German child. Veering from farce to sentimentality, infused throughout with the anarchic pop humanism Waititi has brought to projects as various as “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” and “Thor: Ragnarok,” it risks going wrong in a dozen different ways and manages to avoid at least half of them.
Johannes, raised in a small town in Germany on a diet of propaganda and official Nazi youth culture, has turned Hitler into an emotional support figure, a confidant whose silliness is partly the mirror of the boy’s own insecurities. There are the serial humiliations of Hitler Youth day camp to contend with. Runty and timid, with halfhearted dreams of growing into an Aryan warrior, Johannes is bullied and teased. His nickname, Jojo Rabbit, isn’t meant affectionately. The buffoons who run the camp, an unhinged Valkyrie (Rebel Wilson) and a washed-out storm trooper (Sam Rockwell), are hardly ideal role models, and not only for the obvious ideological reasons. They are less terrifying than the ghoulish local Gestapo man, played by Stephen Merchant.
Luckily, Johannes has a kindhearted mother, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson), who is immune to the seductions of National Socialism. (He also has a nonimaginary friend, Yorki, played by a scene-stealing young comic dynamo named Archie Yates.) The extent of Rosie’s opposition reveals itself slowly to Johannes and the viewer, whose point of view remains anchored in the bright colors and magical thinking of the child’s perspective. Still, we know more about what’s happening than he does, not only because we’re aware of the history he is living in, but also because we’re familiar with the contours of his type of coming-of-age story.
At stake are Jojo’s innocence and his decency, and how one is purchased at the cost of the other. He needs to outgrow his selfishness and acquire the resources of empathy. Rosie can teach him a little, but his real education comes through his relationship with Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), a Jewish teenage girl with artistic inclinations whom Rosie has hidden in a crawl space in their house. In Elsa’s presence Jojo is by turns resentful, afraid, infatuated and possessive. The tumult of his feelings, beautifully realized by the 11-year-old Davis, gives the film sweetness and charm as well as a sense of ethical urgency.
Sweetness and charm may not be the notes you want or expect in a movie about genocide and fascism, and there are times when the mood turns sticky and soft, straying a bit too close to the cloying kitsch of Roberto Benigni’s “Life Is Beautiful.” Waititi is trying for a tricky blend of tones, and “Jojo Rabbit” is sharpest when it dares to be funny. Laughter is inherently violent as well as potentially soothing, and the most farcical aspects of Jojo’s world are also the most terrifying. Without resorting to graphic imagery or replicating the sadism of its villains, the movie paints a credible, if unabashedly cartoonish, picture of the workings of an evil system.
The particulars of the evil can seem curiously abstract, and the portrayal of goodness can feel a bit false, and forced. The outlandishness of anti-Semitism is emphasized — the idea that Jews have horns, for instance — to the exclusion of its less superstitious manifestations. And Elsa’s Jewishness has no real content. She exists mainly as a teaching moment for Johannes. Her plight is a chance for him to prove his bravery.
This isn’t offensive, exactly — the spirit of the movie is too warm and the filmmaking intelligence too invigorating to provoke a strong objection — but it is a little disappointing. The humor is so audacious and the psychological insight at times so startling that it’s hard not to be dismayed when an easy and familiar dose of comfort is supplied at the end. This “Rabbit” is maybe just a little too cute, and a little too friendly.
Rated PG-13. Nazis. Running time: 1 hour 48 minutes.