Director: Will Gluck
Cast: Quvenzhané Wallis, Jamie Foxx, Rose Byrne, Cameron Diaz, Bobby Cannavale, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, David Zayas
MPAA Rating: (for some mild language and rude humor)
Running Time: 1:58
Release Date: 12/19/14
Review by Mark Dujsik | December 18, 2014
We may not need a new version of the 1977 stage musical Annie any more than we need a new version of any work. Yes, there is reasonable cause for pessimism about remakes/adaptations/updates/re-imaginings/whatever buzz-word the marketing department decides to use to describe the latest version of a work. Then there are, as they will hastily be dubbed, the Original Purists, who go beyond the rationale degree of cynicism. They seem to believe that any remake/adaptation/update/etc. is intrinsically inferior simply because of its nature as a remake/adaptation/etc.
One wonders if this confounding lot would have scoffed at the 1982 movie adaptation of the musical because it wasn't the play. If we continue the odd logic, wouldn't they also have felt the need to deride the stage musical because it wasn't Harold Gray's comic strip or, for that matter, the comic because it wasn't the James Whitcomb Riley poem that inspired the character?
We must approach reworked material like this new, updated version of Annie with at least a slightly open mind. If a person believes the movie to be an inherent blunder because it's not the first movie/the play/the comic strip, we should show some sympathy to that individual and his or her restricted worldview. That's not to defend Annie, either, but at least the movie tries to establish unique personality. Most of its successes and shortcomings are primarily the result of the movie's own design, and there's something admirable about that.
It begins with the recognizable image of a red-haired little girl named Annie, who stands in front of a classroom extolling the virtues of President William Henry Harrison—he of the month-long presidency—before breaking into a spontaneous soft-shoe routine. Her classmates groan. Next up for a presentation is another Annie (Quvenzhané Wallis)—"Annie B.," as the teacher refers to her (Her last name is Baxter). She chooses Franklin Delano Roosevelt and leads the students in a percussive display of class disparity, with the front row clapping and cheering their wealth while the rest of the students pound their desks in disapproval.
People were poor back then just as they are poor now, she argues. It's a simple notion, then, that the movie reveals as a justification for its existence. If Gray's orphan Annie was relevant in the era of the Great Depression, then this modern-day Annie, living in the aftermath of the Great Recession, is at least relevant in a similar spirit.
The screenplay by director Will Gluck and Aline Brosh McKenna adjusts plenty of minor and major things in order to bring Annie to today's world. She may or may not be an orphan (The fate of her parents is never revealed), but whereas people didn't "care a smidge" because she lived in an orphanage in Charles Strouse and Martin Charnin's mind-gripping tune "It's the Hard Knock Life," people "don't care a bit" about Annie in this version because she's a foster kid. She lives in the filthy apartment of Miss Hannigan (Cameron Diaz), a resentful former backup singer who keeps foster children for the weekly check from the government, with a group of other girls.
"Daddy" Warbucks is now Will Stacks (Jamie Foxx), the germophobic CEO of a cellphone company who is also running for mayor of New York City. He becomes Annie's temporary guardian after video of him saving the girl from an oncoming car goes viral on the Internet. It's a transparent campaign gimmick, and the precocious Annie happily plays along with the scheme, given that she gets a dog and free rein in a luxury penthouse apartment out of the deal. Stacks' assistant Grace (Rose Byrne) sees to Annie's emotional care.
The changes to lyrics are mostly cosmetic (save for one song that now becomes an ode to the automated apartment), and for the most part, the bigger changes to the characters to accommodate the modern setting work. There are new songs that feel as arbitrary to moving the plot forward as the original ones. The arrangement of the original songs, which emphasizes the percussion elements, is over-produced (Everyone's voice sounds as if it has been put through a harmonic cleaner) but serviceable. The movie makes a few jokes about the absurd but pleasant nature of musicals, with Hannigan confused by Stack's political aide (Bobby Cannavale) breaking into song in order to convince her to betray Annie. They're amusing enough.
The problems here, apart from the innately formulaic nature of the plot, are mainly ones of performance and direction. Wallis is pluckily charming as Annie, a role that depends entirely on plucky charm. When the part is played as a joke, Foxx is fine as Stacks, but he seems distant as the character's affection for his ward grows (It's a little strange that Annie's connection to Stacks' driver, played by Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, feels more genuine). Diaz' overblown performance is, in about equal parts, appropriately and awkwardly grating.
Gluck shoots the musical numbers with the kind of busy coverage that makes them uninviting, and his clumsy handling of the drastic tonal shifts, from self-referential comedy to political ideas to mawkish and unearned sentimentality, doesn't do the movie any favors, either. Annie is smart enough to forge its own identity, but the movie feels unsure of itself about what that identity is.
Copyright © 2014 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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