Movie Review: The quirky charm and tolerant message of “JoJo Rabbit”

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“JoJo Rabbit” is “Life is Beautiful,” as directed by Wes Anderson, co-starring Pee-wee Herman as Adolf Hitler.

Yeah, that’s it.

New Zealand director Taika Waititi’s playful, wildly eccentric film of Christine Leunens’ satiric novel mixes daffy charm with poignant personal politics in a coming of age story set in Nazi Germany.

A little boy (Roman Griffin Davis), a new member of the Hitlerjugend (Hitler Youth), is an ardent Nazi at 10, and a devout anti-Semite, even though he — like his best friend (Archie Yates)– doesn’t really understand what that’s all about.

And his imaginary friend, that dizzy Adolf himself (Waititi), isn’t much help in that regard, either.

The tale, set in a colorful bubble of “No war, here” Bavaria in the last months of World War II, follows little Johannes or “JoJo” as he tries to fit in with the Hitler Youth, struggles to master the martial skills passed on to him by the older boy/bullies in his troop and please the commander, Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell), a soldier demoted to this duty after losing an eye in combat.

They give the children uniforms with an “S” rather than “SS” on the lapels, stylish daggers — which lead to dagger accidents — and indoctrination. How do you recognize a Jew? Look for the scales, the tail, the horns, their instructor (Rebel Wilson) insists.

“They smell like Brussels sprouts!”

The older boys are already fanatics, and JoJo is one in the making, thanks to his obsession with his playime friend, who quizzes him on Nazi dogma and propaganda, and makes him practice his “Heils.”

“Heil Hitler” jokes have been around ever since the silly phrase was invented, and that’s a running gag here, worn-out, but still funny and thanks to the global revival in mimicking Hitler’s “very nice people,” still germaine.

JoJo gets his “Rabbit” nickname when he refuses to murder a bunny in a Hitlerjugend initiation rite. But his pal Adolf isn’t hearing the “You’re a coward, just like your father” taunts, and the Captain is more understanding than the Proud Boys of their troop.

JoJo’s adoring mom (Scarlett Johansson) accepts her kid’s fanaticism in the “just a phase” sense. We see her tiny acts of defiance and resistence to the fascism that rules their lives long before JoJo stumbles into “the Jew in the walls.”

That would be Elsa, played by Thomasin McKenzie of “Leave No Trace.” She’s being hidden by JoJo’s mom, and she’s mean enough to fit JoJo’s idea of a Jew. But what about the tail, the scales, the horns?

“We get those when we turn 21.”

Think she might temper JoJo’s devotion to Naziism?

Johannson has never played a sweeter character on the screen, and she delivers an endearing performance.

Rockwell can always be relied on to find the off-center center of an oddball like Captain Klenzendorf.

Stephen Merchant makes an amusing, “Heil” happy Gestapo agent, and young Mr. Davis makes this little Aryan adorable, but deeply troubling. McKenzie is a teen talent to be reckoned with.

But Waititi makes the overpowering impression here, one played up in all the film’s advertising. He does everything but sing “Springtime for Hitler” in this performance, the writer and co-star of the vampire dramedy “What We Do in the Shadows” giving us the insanely silly, and just enough of the psychotic menace of Hitler to remind he wasn’t that funny.

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But the film’s blend of the precious with the precarious, pratfalls chased by poignant moments that remind us of the historical trauma that was unfolding around them, can be jarring.

Truth be told, the laughs rarely have much gusto to them.

Yes, these children will be hurled into combat, something JoJo’s grenade accident in the Hitlerjugend foretells.

Yes, millions of Jews, gays, Gypsies and Slavs were murdered — outside of this picturesque Bavarian bubble. Elsa gets that. Rosie (Johannson) knows.

Yes, it’s kind of funny that people fell for an infantile, tantrum-tossing fraud like ditzy Adolf. Or it used to be.

And yes, it’s topical. The accident of timing could make one wince when the film does its own version of “American liberators” arriving, a familiar trope of World War II movies set in Europe only recently stained and tarnished by the direction the “liberators” and their current dear leader have taken.

It’s just that removed from the heady group-think of its various film festival premieres, “JoJo” seems like a serio-comic hothouse flower, too fragile to pack much of a satiric punch, too delicate to deliver the comic sting Waititi aspires to.

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MPAA Rating: PG-13 for mature thematic content, some disturbing images, violence, and language

Cast: Roman Griffin Davis, Thomasin McKenzie, Sam Rockwell, Rebel Wilson, Stephan Merchant and Scarlett Johansson

Credits: Written and directed by Taika Waititi, based on a Christine Leunens novel. A Fox Searchlight release.

Running time: 1:48

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