Modernized ‘Annie’ is an underwhelming, quasi-musical mess
Starring Quvenzhane Wallis, Jamie Foxx & Cameron Diaz
Directed by Will Gluck
“You’re such a special little girl,” one character tells the world’s most famous little orphan during this latest musical remake of her well-traveled tale.
And it’s certainly true: Little Orphan Annie, the eternally young waif, has cut a 90-year swath across pop culture, from comic strips to the Broadway stage and beyond. You’ve got to be some kinda special to live nearly 100 years and never look a day over 9.
But most people who are familiar with Annie today know her from the 1982 musical made about the 1970s Broadway production, and that will be the standard—for better and for worse—to which much of this new Annie will be compared.
Perhaps it’s finally time for Little Orphan Annie to come out of the 1920s and into the modern world, and this version does that, all right, putting a shiny contemporary spin on an old, familiar story. But just how well will Annie fans take to mashed-up, hip-hop songs, miscast performers, and a production that sinks far more than often than it soars?
The new Annie, Quvenzhanè Wallis, who received an Academy Award nomination when she was 6 for her starring role in as the unflappable bayou child in Beasts of the Southern Wild, has a relaxed, natural charm and undeniable cuteness. But she’s no “stage kid,” and she’s clearly out of her element in a role requiring extensive singing and dancing.
Jamie Foxx plays Will Stacks, the contemporary equivalent of Daddy Warbucks, now a fat-cat tech tycoon running for mayor of New York. Cameron Diaz is Miss Hannigan, the boozy-floozy foster mom raising Annie—a several other preteen tykes—in a welfare-funded tenement. Bobby Cannvale and Rose Bryne are Stacks’ campaign manager and personal assistant, working hard to humanize his cool, aloof image.
Fine performers all, they’re hamstrung by cinematography, choreography (or lack of it) and staging that leaves them stumbling, bumbling, flailing, wailing and sounding like their vocals have been pumped into an Annie atomizer. Director Will Gluck, whose previous films include the witty teen comedy Easy A and the sexy relationship farce Friends With Benefits, had never directed a musical before. This makes you wonder if he’d ever paid much attention to one, either.
Enter Annie—now a foster child instead of an orphan—in an encounter than becomes a YouTube viral video and a campaign godsend for Stacks, and the opportunity for the moppet to work her magic.
Except there’s not a lot of magic to be found—certainly not in the signature show tunes, like Tomorrow, Hard Knock Life and Little Girls, which are revised with new lyrics and urbanized, boom-box-y arrangements, and supplemented with some new tunes entirely. The storyline, though mostly hewing to Annie basics, dazzles it up with contemporary window dressing, including a Big Apple setting, jazzy lingo (“janky,” “Bam!”), celebrity cameos (Hey, there’s Michael J. Fox! And Austin Kutcher—and Mila Kunis!) and a breathlessly “today” subplot driven by cell-phone tracking and Twitter postings.
But it all makes for one big, underwhelming quasi-musical mess. Little Orphan Annie has been a kitschy, pop-cultural treasure for nearly a century, arcing across generations with a message of spunk, sunshine, adventure, uplift and the possibilities of better, brighter tomorrows. But most viewers will probably be disappointed to watch this Annie fall—and ring—achingly flat, reminding them mostly of much more enjoyable yesterdays.
—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine