When the Taika Waititi Nazi comedy “Jojo Rabbit” debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival, Fox Searchlight had reason to be disheartened: Reviews were not good, ranging from middling to scathing. A month later, as it moves into five New York/Los Angeles theaters for its rollout, everything’s changed: With more reviews in, Rotten Tomatoes stands at 80%,” and it has the backing of TIFF’s Audience Award — the same one that presaged the 2019 Best Picture Oscar for “Green Book” last year.
Robert Eggers’ “The Lighthouse” is also stepping up with a two-city release, this one backed by bigger stars (Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe) and stronger reviews — but while it doesn’t have Hitler, it is a single-setting two-hander shot in black and white. The weekend also sees the wide release of two sequels: Disney’s “Maleficent: Mistress of Evil” and Sony’s “Zombieland: Double Tap,” which will likely take the nos. 1 and 3 spots, “Joker” landing in between — and that could represent the first time this year that the top three titles made over $30 million.
Here’s what to look out for this weekend among the new films:
The rise of “Jojo Rabbit”
Waititi’s resume ranges from “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” to “Thor: Ragnarok,” along with his own “What We Do in the Shadows” franchise, and he parlayed that clout into a project that would otherwise seem impossible: An original idea (inspired by Christine Leunens’ 2008 novel “Caging Skies”) that features Nazi satire and its director starring as a nominally lovable Adolf Hitler.
But make it he did. “Jojo” has received more mixed reviews than “Joker” (53 on Metacritic compared to 59) and if nothing else, watching a familiar name take this kind of risk adds interest.
“Jojo” will play at two prime AMC and Regal Manhattan locations, The Landmark and Arclight Hollywood in Los Angeles, and the Alamo Drafthouse in Brooklyn. The net result is “Jojo” while it could have a bigger opening than “Parasite,” which opened in three, seating configurations mean that it won’t have the opportunity to gross what “Parasite” did per theater ($128,000).
Of note: It’s almost unheard for a Brooklyn theater to be part of a platform launch. With its specialized audience appeal, “Jojo” could be a good test of whether that would make sense for other titles. And a successful launch would represent a needed boost for Fox Searchlight, which is now owned by Disney and hasn’t had a specialized hit since “The Favourite.”
Robert Eggers, who released “The Witch” with A24, returns with a narrow-framed film set off the coast of Maine the late 19th century. It has scored high-end reviews (83 Metacritic) and has awards hopes, particularly in acting, and a smart distributor. It has an elevated platform release, with Boston, Washington, and San Francisco to a standard four-theater New York/Los Angeles placement.
A less-magnificent “Maleficent”
While Disney will likely top the weekend with the “Maleficent” sequel, it won’t set any records. It’s expected to open over $50 million, which would be about a third less than the $75 million (adjusted) opening weekend for the 2014 original and only a little ahead of the disappointing start for “Dumbo” last spring. While no one needs to worry about the fortunes of the biggest box-office player, the franchise-heavy Disney needs to successfully exploit its IPs and sequels to live-action redos loom large in their hopes.
Watch out for zombies
A decade after the sleeper success of “Zombieland” (domestic adjusted gross $90 million, about triple its budget), this Sony sequel features much of the same cast and crew. It’s more expensive ($42 million) and, so far, seeing much tougher reviews than the original. However, this horror comedy has one big advantage: It’s the go-to film heading into Halloween. Consensus has it opening to as much as $30 million.