Waititi’s ‘Jojo Rabbit’ finds a mixed response in Toronto

TORONTO (AP) — It’s just a few hours before Jojo Rabbit will make its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, and writer-director Taika Waititi is still figuring out how to talk about it.

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

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.

Jojo Rabbit is as singular as its director, the New Zealand filmmaker of absurdist comedies (What We Do in the Shadows, The Hunt for the Wilderpeople) who’s coming off helming the 2017 Marvel smash Thor: Ragnarok.

It’s a coming-of-age story about a 10-year-old boy named Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) who lives with his mom (Scarlett Johansson) and has an imaginary friend he talks to for company and guidance.

Writer-director-actor Taika Waititi posing for a portrait to promote his film, ‘Jojo Rabbit’, at the Fairmont Royal York Hotel during the Toronto International Film Festival on September 8. PHOTO: AP

Oh, and also Jojo Rabbit is set in Nazi Germany and that imaginary friend is Adolf Hitler. But that summary doesn’t really do the job either. Hitler, as played with bug-eyed flair by Waititi, is really the young, uncertain boy’s confused, half-formed idea of Hitler, the man he’s been indoctrinated to idolise. The movie starts off a madcap comedy and gradually morphs into something sweetly sentimental, as Jojo begins questioning what he’s been told about Jews after discovering one (Thomasin McKenzie) living in his attic.

Jojo Rabbit is 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,” said Waititi, alluding to more straightforwardly serious films about WWII Germany. “If that involves adding humour and absurdity, then so be it. It’s still communicating the same ideas.”

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

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

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 originally 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 said.

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.”