Toronto: Will Divisive Reception Sink 'Jojo Rabbit' With Oscar Voters?

It is only right to acknowledge upfront that I have been wrong before in my initial readings of the awards prospects of movies from Fox Searchlight, the art house producer and distributor that is now celebrating its 25th anniversary and first year under the aegis of Disney. I quickly amended those assessments, though, upon second viewings of the films in question, when it became clearer to me why they would resonate with the Film Academy.

For this reason, I look forward to a chance to revisit Jojo Rabbit, a Holocaust dramedy written and directed by and starring Taika Waititi, which had its world premiere at Toronto's Princess of Wales Theatre on Sunday night as part of the Toronto International Film Festival, and which I did not find to be a likely Oscar contender at all.

Waititi is a New Zealander best known for directing the 2014 horror-comedy What We Do in the Shadows and the 2017 superhero film Thor: Ragnarok. He's also quite a funny character, based on off-the-wall speeches I recently saw him give at the Hollywood Foreign Press Association's Grants Banquet and TIFF's Tribute Gala, where he was honored with the director award named after the late, great Roger Ebert.

But the Holocaust, of all subjects, is no laughing matter. Yes, Charlie Chaplin ridiculed Hitler in 1940's The Great Dictator, and Mel Brooks did so again in 1968's The Producers. And yes, Roberto Benigni made a comedy set in a concentration camp. But in 2019, when anti-Semitism is surging in America and abroad, it feels cringeworthy, not funny, to see a twee, Wes Anderson-esque film about a little boy (Roman Griffin Davis) who passionately hates Jews but is kicked out of a Hitler Youth group (run by Sam Rockwell with the assistance of Rebel Wilson) for not being cruel enough; whose imaginary best friend is Hitler himself (also played by Waititi, as a buffoon); and whose mission is to figure out a way to eliminate the Anne Frank-like teenage girl (Leave No Trace's Thomasin McKenzie) who he learns his single mother (Scarlett Johansson) has hidden in their attic — until, that is, he falls in love with her and reconsiders.

A storyteller can tack a moral lesson on to the end of any story, and this one does, but the journey to that point is not negated. For some, Waititi's association with the film is enough to get them to show up to see and, in some cases, to gush over it, as many certainly did at its world premiere, where it was very warmly received.

But the next day, Jojo Rabbit clocked in at a terrible 55 percent on Rotten Tomatoes (not helped by the fact that all of the characters seem to speak with different accents), a range from which very few films have ever emerged to receive major Oscar recognition (it is now up to 75 percent, which is better but still not great). There are certainly aspects of the film that are strong — Rockwell's crazy performance and McKenzie's quiet one, the colorful production design, etc. But, at the end of the day, I just cannot see Academy members gravitating to the film itself in large numbers.