Sony Pictures Entertainment
The Annie mythos – culled from various versions, from an 1885 poem by James Whitcomb Riley to the Harold Gray-crafted syndicated comic strip to the beloved 1977 Broadway musical and its subsequent 1982 film adaptation – has evolved quite spectacularly over the years. Once a character in a poem that is straight up about goblins, Annie is now the adorable, plucky heroine of a feel-good musical about finding your own family (and copious amounts of cash) in the most unexpected of places. Still, the problem with Annie is that, jazzy song-and-dance sequences aside, the story itself is almost too wrenching to be believed. At least, that’s the problem with Will Gluck’s Annie, which insists on foisting still more troubles on our pint-sized leading lady while also involving a weirdly adult subplot about corporate invasions of privacy.
Isn’t being a goddamn orphan bad enough? No, because this orphan has to soft-shoe it through a feature that thinks that illiteracy works wonders as a late-breaking, totally tossed-off issue and that selling kids for cash is the kind of feature the entire family can enjoy this holiday season. Still worse, the musical elements of the film – which is still a musical, no matter how many times its own characters make fun of the genre during the actual course of the feature – are ham-fisted, poorly made and embarrassing.
As the eponymous orphan Annie, star Quvenzhane Wallis mugs it up throughout the feature, though she is still preternaturally adept at adding gravitas and depth to even the flimsiest proceedings (is Annie so secretly sad because Wallis is so good at telegraphing actual emotion? or has Wallis added in a new layer of emotion to the story because its retrofitted plotline demands it? it’s a chicken and egg issue that may never be answered). Wallis is, however, unable to tap into the more literally theatrical elements of the feature, and Gluck’s shaky, nearly unintelligible lensing of nearly every big song-and-dance sequence does her no favors, even as it appears to be hiding her lack musical chops.
The result isn’t a plucky, cute kid (and Oscar nominee) trying to do her best in a pack of trained theater kids – which the rest of the orphans so clearly are – it’s a musical that appears afraid to announce itself as such. These musical numbers are just airless, there’s little joy or spirit to be found here, and Gluck attempts to gussy them up with gags that only momentarily distract the audience before sinking back into utter incompetence.
Annie is a bad musical.
But it’s not a totally irredeemable film.
Beyond Wallis’ eye-popping charisma, the film is packed with plenty of other bold, big performances by nearly every talent involved. Jamie Foxx gives his all to his turn as Benjamin Stacks (a modern spin on Daddy Warbucks), and even if the character is thinly, bizarrely written (he wants to be the mayor so more people will like him? despite his total lack of interest in other people and piles upon piles of cash?), Foxx tries his damnedest to have fun with him. Only a true star like Foxx could turn a scene that is, at its most literal core, entirely about a man singing in a helicopter about the modern marvel that is cell phone towers into an entertaining and oddly emotional outing.
Rose Byrne, as Stacks’ second in command (and maybe more), and Bobby Cannavale, as his money-motivated campaign manager, similarly go great guns on their roles, and Byrne’s flinty charm and Cannavale’s ability to go full wacky goofy (at one point, he strips a tree of its leaves in an attempt to launch a “whimsical” leaf fight) are among the highlights of the film. Carmon Diaz, cast as a contemporary Miss Hannigan, still pissed she was kicked out of – wait for it – C + C Music Factory before they made it big, doesn’t come off as well, and despite late dips into emotion and honesty, Diaz is saddled with a relatively uneven character. Her singing, much like Wallis’, is simply not up to musical snuff, and her very character makes it impossible for her to make up for her crowing with charm.
The newest version of the Annie story attempts to inject contemporary issues – cell phone companies can track you! and isn’t that so awesome? — into what should be a feel-good feature, and that creeping sense of “the real world” only further pushes the uncomfortable edge that lurks over the entire story. Yes, a sweet and smart orphan who finds a loving (and, again, totally cash-stacked) home in the most unexpected of ways is a lovely story. It’s probably one that’s even worth singing about, but this modernized story forgoes the simple charms of a solid tale in order to, what, sound a smidge more contemporary and cool? To mock the very genre it’s part of? To make people remember that poverty, hunger, and illiteracy exist in this country and that they can literally be (very poorly) danced over?
The sun may come out tomorrow, but this Annie is dark indeed.
The Upside: Wallis is charming as ever, Foxx fully commits to the film and his role, Byrne and Cannavale are genuinely hilarious, a handful of sequences that pop, occasionally very sweet, has a dog, also a helicopter.
The Downside: Mostly lifeless and poorly directed musical numbers, a bizarre subplot involving the reach of capitalism and big business, wretched singing from some of its biggest leads, a number of uncomfortable details that rob it of its charm, wholly unnecessary as a remake.
On the Side: The film was originally intended to be a star vehicle for Willow Smith, who eventually aged out of the part while the film went through a seemingly never-ending planning phase.