Leapin’ Lizards! “It’s a Hard-Knock Life” and “Tomorrow” have been auto-tuned to the point where the lyrics sound like they’re being sung by a toaster oven rather than by the optimistic moppet Annie.
Once you get over the auto-tune pop star enhancements and the truncation of the irresistible tunes from the 1977 hit musical Annie until they are little more than melodic samples, you settle down and realize that the 2014 cinematic update has its charms.
Based on the 1924 comic strip by Harold Gray, Annie tells the Cinderella story of a Depression-era orphan who goes from the slums to the swank life after Annie and her dog Sandy meet billionaire tycoon Daddy Warbucks. Annie changes Daddy Warbucks from hard-crusted businessman to softie and even beguiles FDR, who comes up with the New Deal at Annie’s behest.
Most tweens these days couldn’t tell a Roosevelt from a rutabaga, so a refresh from the musical and subsequent 1982 movie was in order. The main appeal of the makeover is Quvenzhané Wallis, the young actress who blew everyone away as the child warrior in a wilderness of poverty in 2012’s Beasts of the Southern Wild (where at age 9 she became the youngest Best Actress nominee in history). With a smile brighter than the nighttime Manhattan skyline, she plays Annie with confidence and moxie—portraying her not as society’s throwaway, but as a resourceful foster child always on the lookout for new opportunities.
That opportunity arrives in the form of wireless mogul Will Stacks (Foxx), a germophobe (the product placement fee for hand sanitizer must have been considerable) and snob who seeks greater power and influence by running for mayor of New York (In a nod to Annie’s creator, Stacks’ opponent is Harold Gray.)
On the way to a public appearance, Stacks rescues Annie from the pathway of a car and on the advice of his soulless campaign advisor Guy (Bobby Cannavale), takes her under his wing. His executive right-arm Grace (Rose Byrne) whisks Annie to Stacks’ space-age penthouse—which looks as cold and uninviting as the space lab where the Alien may be lurking—and cue the music, everyone bursts into a weirdly modernized version of “I Think I’m Gonna Like It Here” with digital boops, whoops and flourishes that make it seem like the cast is burping vowel sounds while singing underwater.
Before you can say “Gee whiskers!,” Annie has snuggled into Stacks’ heart and even takes his moral conscience up a few notches.
The classic songs from the original Annie are either shortened to Vine-length or pretty much obscured by the Victoria Justice-Arianna Grande treatment. Don’t even ask about “You’re Never Fully Dressed without a Smile” because it is just too painful to write about. And the new songs by Sia and Greg Kurstin are synth-pop doggerel with idiotic lyrics that must have been made up on the spot.
Director Will Gluck—perhaps best known for the films Easy A and Friends with Benefits—does not seem to have much affinity for movie musicals, as the camerawork wavers between frenzied and flat-footed. Not that he has a bunch of chanteuses and twinkle-toes to work with. Gluck’s main job seems to be trying to window-dress the fact that none of the stars are what you would call hoofers and with the exception of Foxx there isn’t a genuine songbird in the cast.
His preferred method of disguise is with the afore-mentioned auto-tuning, as well as pasting social media mentions over everything—Twitter feeds, texts and OMG even a “You go girl!” message from Katy Perry. The social media angle adds fun and modernity to the movie, while also reinforcing the idea that technology is no substitute for real-life connections and familial relationships.
However, cyber gewgaws cannot completely conceal some fundamental awkwardness in the updating. The Harlem location might as well be Sesame Street and the allusions to New York neighborhoods and inherent snobbery require a child to have an intimate grasp of Manhattan geography.
Changing the time period to the 21st century also requires that the boozy, child-hating Miss Hannigan (Cameron Diaz) lose the orphanage connection and become a foster mom just in it for the bucks. But did they have to add that she’s a washed up singer (she was kicked out of C+C Music Factory before they were famous, again, what kid is going to get that pop culture reference and what parent would care?) and a cheap floozy?
Miss Hannigan is hardly a dignified figure—but is usually a deftly comic one—and this skankiness is an all-time low. She’s embarrassing and Diaz makes her creepy and crepuscular, especially in the bastardized numbers “Little Girls” and “Easy Street.”
On the other hand, Annie’s gaggle of fellow foster kids is adorable and add fresh-faced poignancy and pluck to their hardscrabble anthem “It’s a Hard-Knock Life” and the stirring “Maybe.” Keeping the focus more on them and the irrepressible Annie might have made this movie as bouncy as the heroine’s signature head of curls.
Rated PG, running time: 1:18
Annie . Directed by Will Gluck . Original musical by Charles Strouse (music), Martin Charnin (lyrics), Thomas Meehan (book) . Additional 2014 movie music by Greg Kurstin, Sia . Based on the 1924 comic by Harold Gray . Starring Jamie Foxx, Quvenzhane Wallis, Rose Byrne, Bobby Cannavale, Cameron Diaz, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, David Zayas, Stephanie Kurtzuba . Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.