“Jojo Rabbit” on Sunday won the Toronto film festival’s top prize, an Oscars bellwether that gives the satirical Nazi comedy a boost as Hollywood’s award season kicks into gear.
Director Taika Waititi also won the festival’s director prize.
The movie from “Thor: Ragnarok” director Taika Waititi tells the story of a young German boy living during World War II whose imaginary friend is a make-believe version of Adolf Hitler.
Billed as an “anti-hate satire,” it plots how the child — a Hitler Youth member with a fondness for Nazi uniforms and book-burnings — discovers that his mother (Scarlett Johansson) is hiding a Jewish girl in their attic.
It beat runners-up “Marriage Story” — also starring Johansson — and Cannes Palme d’Or winner “Parasite” from South Korean director Bong Joon-ho.
The Toronto People’s Choice Award, determined entirely by the votes of festival attendees, has a strong history of predicting Oscars success.
The last seven winners were all nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, with two of those winning the Oscar, including last year’s surprise victor “Green Book.”
“12 Years a Slave” (2013), “The King’s Speech” (2010) and “Slumdog Millionaire” (2008) all began their award season journeys to Oscar glory with the Toronto prize.
“Jojo Rabbit” earned only middling reviews from critics after its world premiere in Toronto.
The Hollywood Reporter praised its “raucous, audience-pleasing outrageousness” but warned its cartoonish approach to Nazi Germany “doesn’t wear well as matters deepen and progress.”
Variety called it a “feel-good hipster Nazi comedy” which “creates the illusion of danger while playing it safe.”
But studio Fox Searchlight, now owned by Disney, hopes the film’s resonance with movie lovers will help it to follow in the footsteps of last year’s surprise winner “Green Book.”
The Toronto International Film Festival is the largest in North America — this year it featured more than 300 films from 84 countries, including 133 world premieres.
New Zealand-born Waititi, who is of Maori and Jewish descent, has said the release of the film is timely in today’s polarized political climate.
“Now we’re seeing all those little pockets of hate groups and seeing these patterns that were happening in the ’30s happening again,” he said. “And for me, now more than ever, I think it’s important that we keep addressing that stuff and revisiting these stories.”
The film has been hailed by some as a masterpiece, Waititi’s eccentric opus and a worthy heir to Charlie Chaplin’s “The Dictator,” while others deemed it a badly misjudged misfire that awkwardly melds humor with atrocity.
Johansson, also Jewish, has said the film’s humor and childish perspective give audiences a new way to grasp “the atrocity of what was really going on at that time.”