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What the Rotten Tomatoes reviews are saying about Jojo Rabbit

Nobody ever accused Taika Waititi of playing it safe. 

Following its screening at the Toronto International Film Festival, reviews are coming in for Jojo Rabbit, the writer/director's dramedy about a young German boy who befriends a Jewish girl during the thick of World War II. So far, the notices are mixed, but mostly positive — although many critics who disliked the film were quicker to characterize it is a severe blunder, rather than just a misfire.

The flick tells the story of Jojo "Rabbit" Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis), a precocious, ten-year old Hitler Youth member who makes a shocking discovery in the attic of his home: his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) is hiding a young Jew named Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), a development which prompts the boy to seek counsel from his imaginary friend. Sure, lots of boys have imaginary friends — but Jojo's is a bumbling, loopy version of Adolf Hitler, who is portrayed by Waititi himself.

The film uses black comedy to skewer Nazis in general and the recent and unfortunate real-world resurgence of Neo-Nazi movements in particular, and observers were rather sharply divided on just how well it accomplishes this goal. Those in both camps pointed out the delicate balancing act Waititi has to execute, as Jojo Rabbit is a film that juggles elements of absurd slapstick, tense drama, and grim horror throughout.

As such, even a few of the flick's positive notices strayed toward the middle of the road in their opinions of just how well it achieved what it set out to do. David Edelstein of Vulture called the movie a "weird hodgepodge," illustrating exactly what he means with a striking contrast: "It's fun to see [Hitler] asking for a heil instead of a high five — but then, all of a sudden, people we care about are hanging by the neck in the town square and Jojo Rabbit becomes another thing entirely." Edelstein ultimately recommended the film, writing, "Even if I don't love Jojo Rabbit… I love that it exists, and that Waititi has forced me to reexamine my own responses."

A goodly number of other reviewers tempered their recommendations of the flick with the observation that, given its sometimes light-hearted approach to its subject matter, it probably shouldn't have worked. "Despite so many forces working against it, Jojo Rabbit does actually work as an entertaining, crowd-pleasing comedy," opined The Film Stage's C.J. Prince. "Calling it an achievement would be a stretch given the divisiveness of the story alone… but it's a funny film with a deranged sense of humor, willing to get pitch black when it needs to, and perfectly in line with Waititi's previous work."

Prince went on to call the film "Neither the masterpiece nor the atrocity it will be described as from here on out by fans and critics alike," and the reviewer was right on the money. Many critics found Waititi's handling of the material to be extraordinarily deft, such as Sam Adams of Slate. "Waititi isn't making light of Nazis; he's mocking them, denying them and their present-day analogues the dignity of taking them — as distinct from the very real threat they pose — seriously," Adams wrote. "For Jojo Rabbit, comedy isn't a means to minimize but to analyze, to pry at the way hateful ideologies can be embraced as a comfort, and how beneath their promise to explain how the world really works is an understanding no more sophisticated than a child's."

Likewise, Chris Evangelista of Slashfilm pegged Jojo Rabbit as one of the best films of the year. "There's some sort of strange magic residing in Taika Waititi's Jojo Rabbit, a film that really shouldn't work — but does, with remarkable results," he wrote. "Waititi's World War II satire is both a magic trick and a high-wire act — the filmmaker keeps pulling rabbits out of his hat while balancing comedy, kindness, and often shocking darkness. The end result is a heartfelt, sweet, blackly comedic coming-of-age journey that tries to find hope in hopeless times."

Collider's Matt Goldberg made an interesting point in opining that the PG-13 rated comedy should absolutely be watched by children, and warned against viewing its treatment of its subject matter in the wrong light. "The film excels at making Nazis small because it's got such a big heart," Goldberg wrote. "It may seem like a weak, obvious message for a movie in 2019 to say, 'Fascism is bad and its followers are overgrown children,' but… a kid can hop on YouTube and get a lecture from a white nationalist, so why not fight back with a well-crafted, utterly delightful comedy? If you leave the space open, fascists will come to fill it, so you can't give them any ground. And wisely, rather than taking fascists on directly and treating them as equals… Waititi just mocks the s**t out of them."

Obviously, the film was a tricky undertaking, and even some of those critics who declined to recommend it expressed appreciation for what Waititi was attempting to accomplish. "When one steps back from Jojo Rabbit and looks at the individual pieces, there's a lot to admire," wrote RogerEbert.com's Brian Tallerico. "Once again, [Waititi] proves to have a gift with child actors… and [the score and cinematography] work together to accomplish that [Wes] Anderson-esque atmosphere that Waititi was seeking. It's clear that success has allowed Waititi to hire all the right people to execute his vision. And yet I left Jojo Rabbit thinking that the exact purpose of that vision remained blurry."

But then, of course, there were simply those critics for whom Waititi's high-wire act came crashing to Earth with a resounding thud. Perhaps the most vicious assessment of the film came courtesy of Slant's Keith Uhlich, who alluded to Waititi's 2017 smash Thor: Ragnarok in referring to the film as Marvel Presents Mein Kampf. This should give you an idea of his review's tone, but be assured, it's even worse than you think.

"Waititi proves incapable of dealing with the twin horrors of oppression and indoctrination, of young and old alike, beyond cheap-seats sentimentality and joke-making," Uhlich wrote. "Waititi prefers to treat his audience like drooling cretins who need their hands held through every shift in tone, reassured that everything, even in a world off its axis, is going to work out. It doesn't help that this misguided production is utterly devoid of laughs… [Jojo Rabbit] is the feature-length equivalent of the 'Springtime for Hitler' number from Mel Brooks's The Producers, sans context and self-awareness."

Yeesh. Well, we had a feeling that Jojo Rabbit would be the kind of movie that defies any kind of critical consensus. But Waititi is a man who always follows his own muse, and in our humble opinion, his muse usually has some pretty great ideas. We'll be first in line to check out Jojo Rabbit when it hits the big screen on October 18.