Masterpiece or misfire? Hitler comedy divides critics, gets awards season buzz

Disney execs were reportedly concerned ‘Jojo Rabbit,’ which it acquired as part of larger 20th Century Fox purchase, is ‘too edgy’; director, who also plays Hitler, denies this

Roman Griffin Davis (L), Taika Waititi (C), and Scarlett Johansson (R) in 'Jojo Rabbit' (Fox Searchlight)

Roman Griffin Davis (L), Taika Waititi (C), and Scarlett Johansson (R) in ‘Jojo Rabbit’ (Fox Searchlight)

“Jojo Rabbit,” a controversial absurdist comedy which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sunday, is a coming-of-age story about a 10-year-old boy named Jojo who lives with his mom and has an imaginary friend he talks to for company and guidance.

Oh, and “Jojo Rabbit” is set in Nazi Germany. And that imaginary friend is Adolf Hitler. And like an “anti-Semitic Jiminy Cricket,” according to Slate,this Hitler dispenses “pearls of wisdom and periodic racial slurs.”

But that summary doesn’t really do the job either. Hitler, as played with bug-eyed flair by writer-director Taika Waititi, is really the young, uncertain boy’s confused, half-formed idea of Hitler, the man he’s been indoctrinated to idolize.

The movie starts off a madcap comedy and gradually morphs into something more sentimental, as Jojo begins questioning what he’s been told about Jews after discovering the one (Thomasin McKenzie) living in his house. “Jojo Rabbit” is thus also about growing up in a world where the received wisdom is ridiculous.

“It’s vital that we keep retelling these stories and doing them in inventive and interesting ways,” Waititi told AP on Sunday in Toronto, alluding to more straightforwardly serious films about WWII Germany. “If that involves adding humor and absurdity, then so be it. It’s still communicating the same ideas.”

Taika Waititi, writer/director/cast member of the film “Jojo Rabbit,” poses for a portrait at the Fairmont Royal York Hotel during the Toronto International Film Festival, Sept. 8, 2019, in Toronto. (Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)

The New Zealand-born director, who is of Maori and Jewish descent, said the release of the film was timely in today’s polarized political climate.

“Now we’re seeing all those little pockets of hate groups and seeing these patterns that were happening in the ’30s happening again,” he said.

“And for me, now more than ever, I think it’s important that we keep addressing that stuff and revisiting these stories.”

“I’m still learning, really, how to describe it,” said Waititi.

It’s no easy task. But, then again, it was even harder when Waititi was pitching “Jojo Rabbit” to film executives. “You don’t walk into a studio and say: ‘Nazi comedy!’” he said.

Third Reich whimsy

Whether Waititi managed to pull it off was of considerable debate once his film did hit audiences Sunday night in Toronto.

It was hailed by some as a masterpiece, Waititi’s eccentric opus and a worthy heir to Charlie Chaplin’s “The Dictator,” while others deemed it a badly misjudged misfire that awkwardly melds humor with atrocity no better than Roberto Benigni’s divisive “Life Is Beautiful” did two decades before it.

The awards season columnist for The New York Times, Kyle Buchanan, said that “despite its high whimsy,” the movie “could become a serious awards contender.”

Entertainment Weekly called it “an audacious piece of Third Reich whimsy that almost definitely shouldn’t work as well as it does.”

By contrast, Variety called it “a studiously conventional movie dressed up in the self-congratulatory ‘daring’ of its look!-let’s-prank-the-Nazis cachet.”

Last month, Variety reported that some Disney executives were concerned about “Jojo Rabbit” being too edgy for the company, which earlier this year took control of Fox Searchlight as part of its larger acquisition of 20th Century Fox. One executive reportedly worried that the film would “alienate Disney fans.”

Actress Scarlett Johansson attends the special screening of ‘Jojo Rabbit’ during the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival in Toronto, Ontario, September 8, 2019. (VALERIE MACON/AFP)

But Waititi said he doesn’t believe that report. He has his own history with Disney. Waititi’s “Thor” movie was a Disney release and made $848 million worldwide. He’s set to direct its 2021 sequel.

“About a month before that article, Iger and Horn had seen the film and they have been very complimentary. They gushed over it,” said Waititi, referring to Disney chief executive Bob Iger and chief creative officer Alan Horn. “They’ve continued to send me supportive notes about the film.”

Waititi also challenged the idea that an independent film like “Jojo Rabbit” could ever be worthy of such consternation.

“It’s like saying, ‘Watch out for that ‘Life Is Beautiful’ movie. It’s going to bring down the corporation,’” said Waititi. “I don’t think you have to worry about this movie because once you see it, it speaks for itself. It’s uplifting and it’s a very positive message.”

A perfect jewel

Johansson, for her part, said the film’s humor and childish perspective give audiences a new way to grasp “the atrocity of what was really going on at that time.”

She described the script, written by Waititi — who also plays the imaginary Hitler — as a “perfect jewel.”

Regardless, “Jojo Rabbit” makes for one of the more audacious gambits by a filmmaker coming off a box-office success, with industry capital to burn. Waititi wrote the film years ago (before his previous three features) after his mother’s description of a novel (Christine Leunens’ “Caging Skies”) piqued his interest.

“Over a couple years I just slowly chipped away at the script. I was never really impatient to make it. I always knew that it was going to be a good film and a really important story, and that if I had to wait, that would be fine,” he says.

While Waititi was on post-production on “Thor,” Searchlight approached him about making “Jojo Rabbit.” And partially because there were likely to be few takers for the role, they suggested Waititi play Hitler, too.

“They convinced me to play Adolf. That was never really my idea,” said Waititi. “Look at me. I’m Polynesian. I’m the least obvious choice. But maybe that’s why it’s a good choice.”

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