When the first trailer for Sony’s remake of Annie hit the web, my gut response was to involuntarily cringe in my seat. The brightly colored preview hit every wrong note for me, promising a traditional take on the play peppered with kid-friendly (read: unsubtle and forced) jokes and heavily auto-tuned musical numbers. So, admittedly, it wasn’t with great enthusiasm that I finally sat down to watch the final product.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not someone who usually recoils from song-and-dance productions, or someone who haughtily looks down upon those movies that try their damnedest to leave you tapping your toes with a big, stupid grin on your face. What I am, however, is someone who’ll defend until my dying breath the importance of being earnest. And that is one trait that this new Annie lacks almost entirely. From its stiff script to its plastic packaging, the film is as obnoxiously phony and hollow as they come.
Believe it or not, lead actress Quvenzhané Wallis is part of the problem – in that she’s perfectly cast. Bear with me here. With her broad smile and expressive eyes, Wallis fully embodies Annie’s sunny disposition. The talented young actress also has a terrific singing voice, which makes it all the more dismaying that the movie typically opts to manipulate it in post. Annie‘s best scene finds Wallis performing a new song titled “Opportunity” on stage, with no tacky obstacles between her and the audience. She’s so convincing in the role of the upbeat, kind-hearted little girl that you’ll leave the theater angry at having seen her cruelly bogged down by such a banal story and clunky dialogue.
If you’ve seen any of the previous adaptations, absolutely nothing will come as a surprise in this new take. Updating the play to modern times, Annie finds its titular orphan made over into a foster child living under the “care” of Ms. Hannigan (Cameron Diaz), a bitter, failed singer with a drinking problem. One day, as Annie is running through New York City with her typical gusto, she’s pulled out of the path of an incoming truck by none other than Will Stacks (Jamie Foxx), a telecommunications bigwig running for mayor. Stacks has a people problem – voters only see him as a slick, haughty CEO – and so his good-hearted personal assistant (Rose Byrne) and oily campaign manager (Bobby Cannavale) suggest he turns Annie into a headline by taking her in. Stacks obliges, introducing Annie to a life of luxury she never could have imagined.
What becomes clear very early on in Annie is that co-writer/director Will Gluck and co-writer Aline Brosh McKenna (27 Dresses) aren’t bringing much innovation to the table. It’s the same old song and dance, a rust bucket given a good polishing. Unfortunately, there’s still very little going on under the hood.
With the film leaking online early, it’s already been a hard knock few weeks for Gluck, and he likely has a couple more ahead. The director just about manages to handle bringing Annie into the 21st century, but he does so without a trace of the winking wit that made Easy A such a winner. Rarely has a movie musical felt so skin-deep (this one’s on Rock of Ages‘ level), a major problem given that Annie is hardly tricky narrative ground to cover.
Gluck and McKenna had the opportunity to make a movie that commented on phone culture, social media, political gaming and the rags-to-riches nature of the Annie story itself, but they miss almost every opportunity to do so (one exception is a well-placed jab at Twilight that finds the characters attending the premiere of ridiculous YA phenom Moonquake Lake). For the most part, though, this is a dumb, dumbed-down movie, complete with a stock villain and painfully predictable plot. It’s also strikingly dumb in terms of its construction, lurching from scene to scene and song to song without ever settling into a natural rhythm. Perhaps kiddies in the crowd won’t notice, but I’d like to give them some credit. They do, after all, have eyes and ears.
Speaking of the construction, Tia Nolan’s editing is often oddly choppy, though I’m not going to hold a grudge given the fresh hell she likely awakened to each morning while working on Annie. If I had to listen to the shrill “I Think I’m Gonna Like It Here” dozens or (gasp) possibly hundreds of times, I wouldn’t be in any shape to handle the task either.
Not all of the music is as cringeworthy, thankfully. Wallis knocks “Tomorrow” out of the park, and when the orphans (also including Amanda Troya, Nicolette Pierini, Eden Duncan-Smith and Zoe Colletti) come together for “It’s A Hard Knock Life,” their enthusiasm is undeniably appealing. Diaz also displays surprising guts on her solo number, the snarling “Little Girls.” On other tracks, though, like Cannavale and Diaz’s agonizingly awkward “Easy Street” and Foxx and Wallis’ overly glossy “The City’s Yours,” you wonder what the filmmakers were thinking. When a bad song hits, often complete with a groaner of a transition, the whole movie grinds to a halt.
Predictably, it’s Wallis who, in the end, saves Annie from becoming a mess without merit. Foxx gets a few fun moments, but his Will Stacks too often feels like a punchline, while Byrne is given absolutely nothing to do. Wallis carries them all. She’s Annie‘s shining star, unfailingly radiant, ensuring that the show just about goes on even as everything else in the movie falls flat around her. But trust me, everything else falls flat. Don’t waste your bottom dollar on something so stale and repugnant.
It's going to be a hard knock holiday for the parents. Wallis aside, Annie is a noxious mess that represents family "entertainment" at its most insufferable.