The morning after “Jojo Rabbit” made its world premiere in Toronto, Taika Waititi, the 44-year-old New Zealand actor-writer-director, was understandably confused. His movie played through the roof with audiences who cheered his lighthearted but serious fable about a lonely young Nazi enthusiast (Roman Griffin Davis) and his imaginary friend Hitler (Waititi), who finds himself fighting for dominance with a young Jewish girl (Thomasin McKenzie) hidden by his activist mother (Scarlett Johansson) behind a wall in his house.
But the day after its debut the film was hovering around 50 on Metacritic. That’s why figuring out the Oscar potential for this movie is dicey. You don’t have to have critical acclaim to win an Oscar. Look at “Bohemian Rhapsody” last year (Metacritic: 49). But that was a worldwide $893 million blockbuster based on the enormous appeal of Queen and Freddie Mercury. The Oscar win went to Rami Malek.
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While “Jojo Rabbit” may play well to Academy voters, it’s an arthouse play from a remarkable filmmaker who has never been in the Oscar zone. Waititi is a late-bloomer, having moved from a tiny town in New Zealand to start dabbling in short films in his 30s. After four features, including the 2014 “What We Do in the Shadows,” he was scooped up by Marvel to direct “Thor: Ragnarok.” And then finally found a home for his long-in-the-works Hitler satire at Fox Searchlight.
The signs around the Holocaust comedy were already hard to parse. Academy voters are receptive to World War II Holocaust dramas, from “Schindler’s List” to “Sophie’s Choice,” but comedies are another matter. “Jojo Rabbit” may be coming at a resonant time as neo-Nazis are on the rise.
But it’s not Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator” (1940), which was daringly made at the time that Hitler was making his onslaught on the world. It landed five Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. Ernst Lubitsch’s “To Be or Not to Be” followed in 1942 (earning an Oscar nomination for Best Score), and Mel Brooks won the 1969 Best Original Screenplay Oscar for “The Producers.” Miramax pushed actor-director Roberto Benigni’s “Life is Beautiful” all the way to three 1999 Oscar nominations and a seat-hopping Best Actor win.
Described as a “grandly entertaining provocation,” Fox Searchlight produced “Jojo Rabbit,” which was then turned down by the New York Film Festival on its way to a world premiere at TIFF. After select preview screenings, Searchlight believed it would play for audiences, and it went through the roof. On the last day of the festival, it won the coveted Audience Award.
Art films don’t need critics to reach audiences, but it helps. And films don’t need critics to play well for the Academy. But the TIFF People’s Choice Award is so predictive with Academy Best Picture nominees because it represents such a broad swatch of ardent cinephiles with mainstream taste. Prior successes include “Green Book,” “12 Years a Slave,” “Slumdog Millionaire,” and “The King’s Speech.”
To get to Best Picture, a movie has to grab attention, be a must-see, a hit, and play well for the Academy voters. “Jojo Rabbit” is on its way, and I’m betting the Academy does like it better than critics, who dinged it for being Holocaust-lite with a borrowed Wes Anderson aesthetic. However, Searchlight also must make this a box-office hit in a challenging market. With the TIFF award, it now has an essential advantage: The critics no longer have the last word. It demands to be seen.