Disney has enchanted generations of children with films about a motherless deer, a singing bear and a cat-kidnapping French butler. Whether it can do the same with a black comedy about a small boy whose imaginary best friend is Adolf Hitler remains to be seen.
Months before its European release date, Jojo Rabbit has already stirred up discomfort in Germany, where the Third Reich is not usually considered a fit subject for cheap laughs.
The film, starring Scarlett Johansson and Rebel Wilson, tells the story of John “Jojo” Betzler, a lonely ten-year-old boy in the Hitler Youth. One day Jojo comes home to find that his mother has decided to harbour a Jewish girl in their attic, prompting him to question his fervent Nazi beliefs in a series of conversations with Hitler, played by the director, Taika Waititi.
Disney Is Nervous
Disney executives are said to be fretting that the “edgy” film, which had its premiere at the Toronto international film festival, could harm its family-friendly reputation.
Nowhere will the scrutiny be greater than in Germany. The film’s German-language trailer has been received with suspicion. It depicts Hitler Youths jumping into a swimming pool, children throwing hand grenades and the Nazi dictator counselling Jojo on dealing with bullies. “You know, people said heaps of nasty things about me: ‘Oh, the guy is insane; oh, he’s a psycho and he wants to kill us all,’ ” Hitler tells his young friend with a shrug.
One critic described the trailer as “obnoxious and mad”. Members of the public have mocked its clunky dubbing, criticised Waititi’s portrayal of Hitler and rolled their eyes at the slapstick treatment of the subject. One said the film was “about as funny as Schindler’s List”. “What rubbish,” another wrote. “You just shouldn’t make jokes or piss-takes about these things.”
The Germans have long been a tough audience for Nazi gags. An attempt to make a German version of Mel Brooks’s musical The Producers backfired in 1976, with critics calling it a “sick joke”. A version of Casablanca also did poorly at the German box office, despite or perhaps because of a decision to cut out virtually all scenes involving Nazis. There have been exceptions to the rule, such as Look Who’s Back, a popular film that resurrected Hitler in 2014 to make a point about Germany’s enduring susceptibility to populist rhetoric.
So … Who Plays Hitler?
Waititi, 44, best known for directing Thor: Ragnarok and What We Do in the Shadows, said Jojo Rabbit was meant to “piss off a lot of racists”. The director took the role of Hitler himself because he could not find an actor willing to play it. He said he had also struggled to find a producer who would take on the risk.
Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter, Waititi said he would tell prospective producers: “It’s about this little kid and he finds this girl in his attic and his best friend is Hitler.” He added: “You can see them [thinking]: ‘Oh my God, no. There is no f***ing way I’m going to have anything to do with this. Bye.”
Eventually the loose adaptation of Christine Leunens’s novel Caging Skies was commissioned by Fox Searchlight Pictures, acquired by Disney this year.