A comedy about Nazis and a German boy whose imaginary best friend is Hitler could have seriously backfired. Luckily for Taika Waititi, director of “Jojo Rabbit”—a film with just that premise—it didn’t.
In “Jojo Rabbit,” Waititi (“Thor: Ragnarok”) delivers a coming-of-age story of a young German boy, a member of a Hitler Youth day camp, who discovers a Jewish girl living in his attic during Nazi-era Germany. The film is at once comical and heartfelt. Jojo Betzler, played by Roman Griffin Davis, is the 10-year-old German protagonist of the film, whose imaginary best friend is Hitler, played by Waititi himself.
Waititi’s satirical portrayal of Hitler constitutes some of the funniest—and edgiest—moments of the film. When Jojo discovers the Jewish girl, played by Thomasin McKenzie, and realizes that his mother (Scarlett Johansson) is responsible for hiding her, he deliberates with his imaginary friend about what he should do. Waititi’s Hitler is buffoonish and childish, reflecting the childlike, albeit single-minded, devotion to the Nazis that Betzler has at the beginning of the film.
While the film is full of moments of provocative, irreverent humor, there are plenty of tender moments as well. Jojo’s relationship with his mother is not at all comical; In fact, the moments that the two spend together are among the most serious in the film. Johansson’s character teaches Jojo important lessons about the power of empathy over blind hatred.
The cinematography of the film was smart and well-paced, and the bright colors of the set were charming and reminiscent of those used in some Wes Anderson films.
The combination of provocative humor and seriousness in tackling the hefty topics of fascism and Nazism make for an intriguing, and potentially controversial, film. Yet, Waititi is not the first director to attempt to do something like this. Charlie Chaplin portrayed Hitler in a comedic manner in his 1940 film “The Great Dictator” and Mel Brooks did so again in 1967 with “The Producers.”
But what makes “Jojo Rabbit” unique in handling this topic is that it is filtered through the perspective of a child, which has implications for how viewers of the film today— most of whom know the history of that political era well—judge the film. Does the fact that Jojo is a child justify the charming, almost “cute” nature of this film? That is for you to decide. The film is currently playing at Regal Fenway & RPX, AMC Boston Common and Landmark’s Kendall Square Cinema.