Jojo Rabbit, Fantastic Fest‘s opening night feature, is Harvey meets The Diary of Anne Frank. That’s because 10-year-old Jojo Betzler, played by Roman Griffin Davis, instead of having a giant rabbit as an imaginary friend, has Adolf Hitler. This kind of complicates his mother’s attempt to hide a young Jewish girl in the attic.
Austin’s Fantastic Fest, the largest genre film festival in the US, features horror, fantasy, sci-fi, action and just plain unusual films from around the world. In prior years it hosted the premieres of now classic films such as John Wick, Frankenweenie, Machete Kills, Red Dawn, There Will Be Blood, Apocalypto, and Zombieland. This year, 2019, the festival ran from September 19-26.
The premiere filled five of the Alamo Drafthouse Theater’s seven screening rooms – partly, I’m sure, because of the presence of the film’s writer/director Taika Waititi. Waititi, known for What We Do in the Shadows, Thor: Ragnarok, and Hunt for the Wilderpeople, welcomed the overflow crowd and answered questions after the screening.
Did the Rabbit Die?
You might think Jojo Rabbit‘s crazy premise would result in a Mel Brooksian romp something like The Producers and its play within a movie, Springtime for Hitler. The story, though full of laughs, is more touching, tragic and nuanced than Brooks’ classic. Not to say that it doesn’t have craziness.
It opens with a German version of the Monkees’ “I’m a Believer” and there are plenty of sight-gags to keep you giggling. And puns; (joke spoiler) The girl hiding in the attic says, “I am a Jew.” Jojo responds, “Gesundheit.”
Jojo wants to be a good member of the Hitler Youth. Boys want to belong. When it comes to a moment in his training when the instructor orders him to kill a rabbit, he balks, and things start to go downhill. When he discovers the Jewish girl hiding in the attic, he realizes that he and his mom could be in big trouble.
Black Widow Back in Time
The cast is marvelous. Scarlett Johansson (Black Widow, Lost in Translation) plays Jojo’s mother. Her character walks a perilous path, knowing that any moment her disloyalty to the Third Reich could be deadly. It’s a test for actors to portray people who are acting. Johansson pulls this off.
Perhaps the most memorable performance belongs to Thomasin McKenzie (Leave No Trace) as Elsa Korr, the Jewish girl in the attic. Once discovered by Jojo she must navigate a careful course to avoid being discovered. Her relationship with Jojo is critical to the progression of the plot.
Other excellent performances are turned in by Sam Rockwell (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) as the commander of the Hitler Youth troop, Rebel Wilson (Pitch Perfect) as his assistant, and newcomer Archie Yates as Jojo’s best friend.
And, of course, Taika Waititi as the imaginary Hitler, who directed the film in costume and make-up as Hitler. That must have been interesting for the cast.
After the screening, the audience got to ask Waititi questions.
He was asked about his choice to do this story.
“There have been many movies in this genre,” Waititi said. “People have been making movies about World War II ever since the war ended, because it was the last ‘good war.’ A war where the lines between good and evil were clearly drawn.”
He also said that his identity as half New Zealander and half Russian Jew may have led him into this.
Another questioner asked whether he researched Hitler for his role.
“No,” Waititi explained, “because this is the imagination of a 10-year-old boy who really didn’t know that much about Hitler.”
Another audience member asked about casting and working with kids in movies.
“Finding Thomasin was easy,” he said, “because she and her family had a background in theater in New Zealand. As for working with kids, it’s easier than with adults.” Half-jokingly he pointed out, “With adult actors they have to get into their roles and it’s ‘What’s my motivation,’ and this and that. With young kids, you get them to memorize their lines and let them be themselves.”
About the take-away of the film, Waititi said, “Kids look to grown-ups to show them what happiness is.”
The film opens October 18. If you can’t wait for the craziness, follow the film on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. You can view the trailer below and stay up-to-date on future Fantastic Fest happenings via Twitter, Facebook or their website.