Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit had its world premiere last night at the Toronto Film Festival, and though it will certainly have its naysayers due to a controversial approach to its subject matter — it features a comical Adolf Hitler character, among other things — the movie was rapturously received with a raucous standing ovation by the first night crowd who seemed to eat it up. Early critic reviews are more divided on Rotten Tomatoes, split just about down the middle.
The crowd reaction, however, justifies distributor Fox Searchlight and Disney’s decision to debut it at TIFF in front of a more urban/cosmopolitan city audience, where they thought it would be an audience-pleaser (at least this audience), and that strategy certainly seemed to work at the Princess of Wales theater last night, followed by a party at Arcane which was so crowded a few guests looked exhausted just trying to navigate from one side of the room to the other. Some Disney execs joined Searchlight toppers for the anticipated launch of the movie, which had pretty much been kept under wraps.
Fox Searchlight co-chairman Steve Gilula was obviously pleased with the reaction, and said the studio plans to platform it slowly beginning October 18 to build to what he thinks could turn into a significant box office success. He says they are aware that it has some detractors, but TIFF’s response has to be encouraging.
Based on a book called Caging Skies, the film is set during World War II and centers on a young awkward Nazi kid (Roman Griffin Davis) who finds his family is hiding a Jewish girl (Thomasin McKenzie). Jojo also has an imaginary friend who happens to be Hitler, played by the director himself, who pops in and out of the picture, which Waititi will hope is outrageous and different enough to spark conversation, get young people engaged, and remind people of the horrendous hate-filled atmosphere of that period and what it led to. Some people will obviously be disturbed by the comical approach and not find the funny in it, and most films dealing with the subject are on the serious side, but from Chaplin’s The Great Dictator to TV’s POW camp sitcom Hogan’s Heroes to even the “Springtime For Hitler” production number in The Producers, comedy has been used to make a point in this arena, and it often works as this film does.
Jojo Rabbit however is stolen lock, stock and barrel by its key cast of young actors including the irresistible Davis, McKenzie and scene-stealer Archie Yates as Jojo’s friend Yorki. This film is undeniably from the director of the wonderful New Zealand 2016 indie The Hunt for the Wilderpeople, which also centered on a unique and memorable kid (in that case played by Julian Dennison), and Waititi really knows how to get gems of performances from his young players. Of course, the adults in this are not bad either including Sam Rockwell, Scarlett Johansson, Alfie Allen, Rebel Wilson and Stephen Merchant.
Waititi feels ignorance and arrogance must be attacked in ways that will grab attention, and that is what he told the sold-out audience after the applause died down for the Q&A. “I think it is important to keep telling these stories again and again,” he said. “We have to keep remembering and keep finding new and inventive ways of telling the same story, and keep teaching ourselves and our children lessons on how to move forward and unified with love into the future.”
Let the debate begin, but in a world where Naziism and its beliefs are creeping back into the public spotlight, you cannot have enough Jojo Rabbits in my opinion.
Johansson had to do the neat trick of maneuvering between competing premieres (a constant problem at TIFF, which has up to eight red-carpet unveilings a day and probably more). Her much acclaimed Netflix film Marriage Story got pretty much the same response in Toronto that it did at Venice and Telluride — which is to say great — at its sold-out Canadian debut at the Winter Garden Theatre where Netflix claims some tickets were reselling for $300 (!) on secondary ticket websites (can you do that here?).
As happened in Telluride when I saw it, Laura Dern’s memorable monologue toward the end stopped the show with applause, as did the musical number “Being Alive” which Adam Driver croons in its entirety, an off-the-wall unexpected moment that is part of what makes Noah Baumbach’s very personal story so unique and fun. The audience gave the filmmakers and cast a standing ovation when they came out for the Q&A. Next stop for this film determined to hit every festival it seems is New York.
Like his Marriage Story co-star Johansson, Driver also is doing double duty darting from one of his premieres to the other. But he didn’t even have to leave the building after his Winter Garden afternoon Canadian premiere of Amazon Studios’ searing The Report, which like Marriage Story also got a standing ovation — but this time for its real-life subject, Daniel J. Jones, on whom the film is based.
Driver plays a Senate staffer who is enlisted by Sen. Dianne Feinstein to do an investigative report looking into the CIA’s post-9/11 Detention and Interrogation plan, leading to some startling revelations. The reception to the film could not have been better and the filmmakers — including producers Steven Soderbergh and Jennifer Fox, co-star Annette Bening who brilliantly plays Feinstein, and writer-director Scott Z. Burns, along with an animated Jones — were on a high when I caught up with them at an intimate Patria reception after the screening. I sat in a corner booth with them where the discussion ranged from the value of streaming vs theatrical (brought up by Bening) to the core issues brought up in the film, which launches with a short window of two weeks exclusively in theaters November 15 before hitting Amazon’s streaming service.
I asked Bening — also doing double duty here at TIFF with another new film, Hope Gap, in which she’s superb — if she had met with Feinstein before shooting the role. She said she has met her before but not for this project, and the star likes it that way. I asked the producers if Feinstein has even seen the film (which originally premiered at Sundance in January) but the answer came back “no.” The senator would prefer to do the work itself and lets others judge it however they get to see it.
This film will put a much bigger focus on this particular report, a lot more than most Senate Intelligence Committee reports every get, and that is a very good thing. Tonight, Soderbergh and Burns will be at it again as they also have multiple movies here and will be at the North American premiere of the politically charged comedy The Laundromat, which I will get to see for the first time as it comes directly from Venice. Burns told me I will see a completely different side of his work in this movie. Soderbergh piped in that it also is just a tight 94 minutes, something to be thankful for in a festival full of very long movies.
After the Patria reception, everyone traipsed over to the Bisha Hotel for dueling Amazon Studios receptions including a second one for The Report and one for the big-scale family adventure epic The Aeronauts, which landed at the Roy Thomson Hall for its TIFF launch straight from Telluride’s world premiere last weekend and received a four-minute standing ovation. Director Tom Harper, producer Todd Lieberman and stars Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones were all here for that. It was a unique setup as there was one entrance for The Report’s party to the right and for Aeronauts to the left, with a set of stairs separating the two. Amazon Studios topper Jennifer Salke navigated her way through both, and earlier at Patria where she was clearly thrilled by the response to two of her first films since taking over the job.
If that wasn’t enough, Sunday night also brought the fun annual film nerd IMDb dinner at Figo led as always by founder Col Needham, and that indispensable archive is of course owned by, you guessed it, Amazon.