by Philip Price
To set the stage: I've never seen any version of “Annie” other than the one I'm about to discuss here. I don't know that I would consider it essential viewing and by some off chance I never saw or read the stage play going through the public school system. Sure, I know a few of the famous songs that were spawned from the original production and I know the basic premise of what is going on, but anything more than that consider me in the dark. Having said that, I feel I can safely assume this latest version is a far cry from what the original had to offer, but that isn't the reason this modern day take on the story doesn't work. I was always somewhat hesitant to even be interested in the film as I am clearly not the target audience, but when the first trailer premiered I admit I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of careless fun that seemed to be brightly packaged with the pure pop confection giving the impression it would likely be a big holiday hit with the kiddos. These positive vibes were only reinforced when, upon doing a little further reading, I found out that Will Gluck would be at the helm of the project. Gluck, who has made three solid comedies since 2009 seems to direct what most have so much trouble doing with ease. There is a simplicity to his comedy that oozes naturally out of the characters he has at play and his pacing always compliments the rapid dialogue at which it is exchanged and thus at which the plot is advanced. “Easy A” is easily one of my favorite comedies of the last 10 years as I've watched it more times than I can count and maybe one of the great high school comedies of all time. Needless to say, despite not being familiar with the material and despite knowing this wasn't going to be for me I was still excited to see Gluck work in a slightly different genre as well as what he might have to offer in terms of crafting a children's film that was both highly entertaining and insightful given the obvious emotion at the core of the given story. Unfortunately, this new “Annie” is anything but fun as it loses its energy and momentum soon after the opening number and is never able to regain that feeling for the remainder of the nearly two hour run time.
Quvenzhané Wallis takes over as the titular star. At risk of stating the obvious she, along with other major character Daddy Warbucks, have been re-cast and are now African-American. This obviously isn't an issue and has nothing to do with the overall quality of the film, but these changes are intentional in that they inform the tone and musical stylings the remake chose to employ. I imagine to make a "black version" of the popular music while creating another star vehicle for Wallis is what drove Will Smith's production company, Overbrook, to partner with Jay-Z and make the thing happen. This is all well and good and there is always interesting things to be done when you take a film, play or any kind of story and decide to put a modern twist on it, but this is where “Annie” kind of trips over itself in terms of trying to keep itself a musical while not really ever committing to the essential elements of that genre. As far as the story goes, Wallis' Annie is still an orphan or, as she prefers to be called, a foster kid under the rule of boozy foster parent Miss Hannigan (Cameron Diaz). Annie has hopes of not only finding a home, but finding her birth parents by rushing every Friday after school to the Italian restaurant where she was left to wait and see if anyone with her last name returns. She's had no luck with this plan, but that luck is about to change when she accidentally runs into Will Stacks (Jamie Foxx) a cell phone tycoon and New York mayoral candidate. Stacks saves Annie from an oncoming vehicle and a video of it goes viral (see, it's updated!) leading his scumbag campaign advisor, Guy (Bobby Cannavale), to suggest Will adopt the young orphan as a publicity stunt so that he might look more relatable. As these things go I'm sure you can guess how the initially cold relationship between Stacks and Annie evolves as they learn more about one another and the romantic subplot concerning Rose Byrne is so obvious they went ahead and spoiled that in the trailers. I liked that our titular character wasn't made out to be a self-loathing foster child, but more a self-assured and street smart kid that clearly sees the hustle she's involved in and leverages her benefactor for all he's worth. I just wish she would have committed to the songs a little more.
There is a palpable and infectious energy from the opening moment of the film. I sat up, almost forgetting what I might possibly be in for and was ready to embrace all that could be a great live action family film in an age where the live action family film is nearly non-existent and certainly under appreciated. The first song, a medley of a few of the more notable tunes from the play, are fine as they are creatively incorporated into the New York City setting as jackhammers, bicycle bells and car horns among other things give us the down beats. As Annie makes her way across town and through the subway I was sure she was going to stop, sing and at least bust out a few moves allowing the team behind this to really set the stage for what was to come, but then nothing happened. More or less shrugging it off, I gave it a pass and waited to see what might happen next. We then receive a couple of numbers closer to the middle of the film in which I again sat up in hopes things might turn around. Some may see Cameron Diaz's performance as rather horrible and I can see where they would be coming from, but despite the fact she can't hardly sing worth a lick she gets a catchy song and humorous choreography that speaks to her inner tragedy. It is a scene where you can feel the R-rated Gluck wanting to burst out of the seams while everything surrounding him screams to the catering of his child and pre-teen demographic. And then there is the number shared by Wallis and Byrne which feels nothing short of lackadaisical in both the production of the song and the choreography. The doubts were piling up at this point as it only became more and more clear with each "musical" element that none of the numbers were fully fleshed out. It's an odd choice that all of the characters are aware of the songs being sung rather than them being inherent to the nature of this world, but even so the songs have almost zero momentum to propel the energy of the film forward let alone the plot. Upon finally feeling ready to admit to this truth on the matter the energy of the overall film tanked, leading it to become more a standard family comedy than a fun, energetic musical.
This type of structure, where they are trying to make a comedy and then decide to throw in characters randomly breaking into song without committing to those songs, only make the musical aspects all the more silly. What might be even worse than the lazy excuses for numbers is the fact the film doesn't allow them to breathe. In what may be the worst of the bunch we get a song from Cannavale and Diaz as they plot to audition people for Annie's real parents. Cannavale has seemed to be making shit up as he went along anyway with his over the top, slapstick routine that falls flat and Diaz, as mentioned earlier, is either really camping it up or just really bad at playing an emotionally abusive, alcoholic foster mom. Regardless, the number between Cannavale's Guy and Diaz's Miss. Hannigan begins and once again you try to get into it and give them some kind of credit for what they're trying to do, but before you can even nestle down into the melody they cut back to conversation between the two breaking the song into unnecessary sections that again slow the energy. This number is a perfect example of what's wrong with the film overall in that it so desperately wants to be a musical, but it doesn't really know how and so instead of trying to figure out how you tell a story through music and convey emotions through dance they do just enough to get by and then cut back to the standard two-shot of actors exchanging dialogue. This of course isn't as compelling or exciting when what you think you're getting into is an updated take on a classic musical where the youth of today will really show audiences what they have to offer. Maybe that speaks to the mentality of our society today as we expect instant gratification and praise for a job done, no matter if it was done well or not. It's not easy to come down on a film one knows is intended for children, but it's difficult to imagine many kids even enjoying what “Annie” has to offer. Look no further than the Jamie Foxx song in the helicopter where to two main characters sit, strapped to a seat as they try to sing and make it lively. It doesn't work, it hardly makes sense and it's even further confirmation everyone here was just following a template, hoping to include everything a kid could imagine so they could advertise “Annie” has everything a kid could want! Even a Night at the Museum!