TORONTO — The marketing materials for “Jojo Rabbit,” the new World War II comedy that premiered at the Toronto Film Festival on Sunday, contain an unusual proclamation. “An anti-hate satire” reads the message above the more traditional actor information.
It’s an unusual move for Fox Searchlight, the powerhouse Oscar-generating company bought by Disney earlier this year — defining the movie’s subgenre amid the marketing hype.
You can’t blame the specialty studio for taking extreme care in rolling out the Germany-set film, which arrives in theaters Oct. 18. Directed by Marvel filmmaker Taika Waititi (“Thor: Ragnarok”), “Jojo Rabbit” tells of a 10-year-old Nazi convinced that he wants to kill Jews; suggests moments of high camp as comic personalities like Rebel Wilson and Stephen Merchant commit gleeful acts of fascism; and features Hitler as a child’s imaginary friend.
The movie could upset the left for its casual use of Nazi iconography and the right for implying any connections to present conservatism. Conveying its message of unity is, for filmmakers, just as critical as highlighting the comedy.
“We don’t say ‘Never forget’ as a joke,” Waititi said after the screening Sunday. “We have to find new and inventive ways to tell the story and move forward with love.”
If you haven’t heard about “Jojo Rabbit,” you soon will.
The film centers on the titular German boy who, in seeking a father figure, embraces Nazism and an imaginary Hitler friend. Then his mother, played by Scarlett Johansson, begins hiding a Jewish girl in their house, complicating the boy’s image of Jews. The movie is high on comedy, sometimes of a cutting-edge modern kind: “Well, I’m massively into swastikas, so,” the boy says when the girl questions whether he is really the anti-Semite he claims. There are plenty of spoof-y jokes besides. But it also seeks to dissect how children come to hate — no one is, indeed, born racist — and by implication how that can be stopped.
The movie’s embrace by the Toronto audience was complete — multiple standing ovations and rapturous enthusiasm for Waititi and the cast at its premiere. Pundits, however, have been sharply divided.
Commentators like Variety critic Owen Gleiberman extolled the movie and its Oscar potential. The Boston Globe’s Ty Burr noted, “At long last, a generation has its ‘Life Is Beautiful,’ ” referencing the comedy that became an Oscar powerhouse two decades ago.
Others, however, have not been persuaded. “The cartoon Nazis in ‘Jojo Rabbit’ are so far removed from reality that they make it all too easy to laugh off the circumstances at hand,” wrote IndieWire’s Eric Kohn. “That’s not only crass but disingenuous. Nazis weren’t just a bunch of dopey chumps.” He said the movie “buries the awful truth.”
Gearing up for this sort of criticism has been a full-time job for Searchlight, which has been carefully readying its counterplan for months.
The studio held the movie back from the Telluride Film Festival, a more boutique affair, to premiere at Toronto, which tends to get a larger and more diverse population (if also, given the cost of tickets, a largely upscale one).
The studio also will release the movie slowly — despite its big stars and buzz, Oct. 18 will see a release in N.Y. and LA — before moving to other large cities and eventually middle America.
“Jojo” was acquired by Fox when it was still controlled by the Murdochs — Rupert Murdoch was made aware of the film and expressed concern behind the scenes but did not intervene, according to a person who was familiar with Murdoch’s reaction but spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect confidential conversations.
Fox Searchlight executives have maintained they have full support from Disney executives and have touted an upcoming screening hosted by chief executive Robert Iger. But one source with knowledge of Disney executive discussions said the company has had executive-level meetings in recent months over potential fallout.
At Disney, the movie will not run into some of the political crosscurrents it might have under Murdoch, who also controls the conservative Fox News cable channel. But Disney, as a family-entertainment company, has long sought to stay above the political fray — a posture that will prove difficult here.
If there was any thought of shying away from politics, Waititi wasn’t having it. Without addressing particular politicians or countries, the New Zealand-born filmmaker said 2019 has seen the same dangers as Germany faced at the time of the Nazis’ rise.
“In 1933 every week, one small change [would happen],” he said. “People would say ‘that’s wrong,’ but it wasn’t big enough to get everyone up in arms. It wasn’t big enough until it was too late.
“Today we say ‘there are only 10 people over there, or 200 people over there,’ ” he added, referring to proponents of racist sentiments. “But [that] is exactly what they said in 1933. The ignorance, and the arrogance to forget, is a big human flaw. That’s why it’s important to tell these stories.”