Director Taika Waititi returns with a satire set in the past that’s still very much about the present.
Waititi takes a break from interstellar super hero adventures to bring audiences another biting comedy. JoJo Rabbit is set in World War II Germany, home of young JoJo (Roman Griffin Davis) and his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson). JoJo is a member of the Hitler Youth, but his heart isn’t really in it and his sensitive nature leads to him being picked on by the other boys.
To compensate for that, JoJo creates an imaginary friend, one that gives him advice and helps him deal with all the emotions he’s feeling. It just so happens that imaginary friend is a version of Hitler himself (Waititi). Things get even more complicated for him when he discovers his mother has been hiding a young Jewish girl named Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) in their home.
Fox Searchlight has given the movie, which is admittedly unconventional in its story and subject matter, one of the more memorable and entertaining campaigns of the year, one that’s true to Waititi’s brand. The movie is only opening in select theaters this week.
The movie’s irreverent attitude is on display on the first poster, released in late July. The title is presented in big letters within a massive hand making what could be bunny ears, a peace sign, or both. The impressive cast list’s names are dropped in the blank space outside of that hand.
In August the second poster came out. This one arranges photos of the primary characters around JoJo, Hitler in the background giving the young boy rabbit ears to convey some sense of humor and have some fun with the title.
The first teaser trailer (2.3 million views on YouTube) was released in late July, at the same time it was announced the movie would screen at Toronto. It doesn’t offer many hints to the story, but does include plenty of scenes showing Waititi’s absurdist take on World War II Germany. At the very end we see the director himself as Hitler trying to raise the spirits of young JoJo, who’s being picked on by his classmates.
September brought the second trailer (10.8 million views on YouTube), released just as the film was enjoying its festival screenings. It’s wonderfully delightful in how it shows JoJo to be a product of his time, albeit an apparently reluctant one. He’s shown as being conflicted about his involvement in various Hitler Youth activities, even as he has his imaginary friend there helping him along. When he discovers his mother has been hiding Elsa in the attic of their house things get even more complicated as he has a face to put to all the propaganda, one that doesn’t seem threatening or dangerous.
There are two moments worth calling out in particular:
First, Elsa repudiation of JoJo – “You’re not a Nazi, JoJo. You’re a 10 year old kid who likes dressing up in a uniform and wants to be part of a club.” – seems like a direct comment on the kind of militia cosplayers frequently seen in today’s world on the outskirts of social protests and other events. These men aren’t actually part of the military but enjoy putting on similar uniforms and sporting similar weaponry, finding common cause in intimidating the women and people of color they feel threatened by.
Two, Hitler’s backwards leg kick as he walks away from JoJo toward the end of the trailer would appear to be Waititi providing a subtle physical reference to a previous comedic incarnation of the dictator. Namely, it’s very similar to how Charlie Chaplin kicks the globe around the room during a key sequence of The Great Dictator. The movement is so clear and similar it can’t help but be inspired by The Little Tramp.
Online and Social
In addition to the trailers and other marketing assets, the official website from Fox Searchlight has a “Message from Taika” where he shares what his goals in making this movie at this time are and why he chose to undertake this kind of project. It’s a wonderful message that speaks clearly to the idea of children being raised to hate and what the effects of that kind of indoctrination are.
Advertising and Publicity
It was announced in late July that the movie would premiere at this year’s Toronto Film Festival, a major platform for the film and one where Waititi was given the Roger Ebert Directing Award. It was also slated to open Fantastic Fest in September and for the London Film Festival as well as the Hamptons Film Festival.
Waititi and Searchlight revived a decade old meme – one that predates the days when social media platforms lets users add GIFs as a shorthand for their feelings – with the release of a reaction video using footage from the film Downfall with new, inaccurate subtitles. In this case, Hitler is shown in his bunker reacting poorly as his generals and others informed him about the movie and Waititi’s involvement. It’s brilliant.
Reactions that came out of the Toronto screening were mostly positive, though a bit mixed as people grappled with how exactly the movie handles its Nazi material. It did win the Audience Award at the festival, though.
It was then scheduled to be the opening night feature at Film Fest 919 in October.
A sweet moment between JoJo and his mother was shown in the first clip released at the beginning of October. The next clip has Rosie confronting a Nazi officer (played by Sam Rockwell) about the mistreatment JoJo has received. One more shows JoJo and Imaginary Hitler having a pleasant and inspiring conversation.
Online ads used a mix of straightforward key art and over-the-top “chumbox” ads that took the provocative nature of the movie’s story and amped it up even further as a way to defuse controversy by poking fun at itself. Preroll video ads were placed on YouTube and other social networks that used cut down versions of the trailer.
Media and Press
As production got underway, Waititi talked about how it was going to piss off a lot of Nazis (always a good thing) and shared a first look at himself in Hitler garb to get people talking. The movie was also part of the CineEurope presentation from the studio. Waititi talked more about his unusual role during a masterclass he held during the Toronto Film Festival and then offered a brief update while promoting the “What We Do In the Shadows” TV show earlier this year.
An interview with Waititi included his comments on the movie’s story and tone.
Reports came to light in early August that Disney executives were becoming increasingly concerned about the movie, specifically that a satirical film about Hitler as a young boy’s imaginary friend was too controversial for the studio’s fans. That seems to assume that group is a single entity with a sole opinion based on movies like Cinderella and Toy Story, not to mention The Avengers and Star Wars. It’s also telling that a movie whose target is Hitler has people within the studio nervous.
During Venice there was another interview with Waititi where he explained how and why he tried to tell a story set in Nazi Germany with a comedic tone and how he approached playing a “benign” Hitler that existed in the mind of a 10 year old boy. He hit similar points when he was interviewed during the Toronto Film Festival.
A massive profile of Johansson included mention of the many high-profile films she has in the works and on the release schedule, but it was her comments about Woody Allen that generated the most headlines.
An interview with producer Chelsea Winstanley allowed her to talk about the role of comedy in analyzing social issues and what kinds of movies she has coming in the near future. Similar ground was covered in a joint interview with Waititi and much of the cast while Johansson spoke about how she approached her role here. Her emphasis on motherhood was reiterated by the director, who said he made the movie in part as a tribute to single moms.
If you want a single element that sums up the tone of the campaign it has to be the resurrection of the Downfall meme. One of the odd things about that meme, which was popular online in the days before Twitter in particular offered native GIF support, was always based on the shared assumption that it was kind of alright to use something explicitly Nazi-related to share some other message. We were finding humor by coopting Nazi imagery, removing some of the power that imagery has.
That’s more or less what Waititi is doing here. He’s using a very specific era – one that was filled with hate and violence – to send a message that hatred and violence are weak and powerless in the face of love and compassion. Using satire to do so only makes that message all the more cutting and compelling.
Waititi has made nothing but wholly original films. Even Thor: Ragnarok is on that list, with a tone and style that was drastically different from other super hero spectacles. They’ve all been about outsiders who are desperate to be understood, and this movie is no different, it’s just using slightly more controversial subject matter for fodder, but that makes the message all the more powerful.