Given that my accepted mindset on the topic of most contemporary films (remakes, reboots, and re-imaginings, in particular) is a resounding, “Bah, humbug!” I have to say, after seeing the new version of Annie starring Quvenzhané Wallis and Jamie Foxx, I feel a little like Albert Finney in the last reel of Scrooge (1970).
Certainly, what with all those negative reviews, poor boxoffice, and my own casual antipathy toward the source material itself ‒ I love the musical score, but my very W.C. Fields-like aversion to hordes of singing children has always prevented Annie from being a huge favorite ‒ expectations couldn't have been lower. I would have been happy had this, the third screen incarnation of the 1977 Broadway musical, been made into a splashy, tolerably bad movie musical on par with Hairspray (2007) or Nine (2009); and if I’m really being honest with myself, I think I might have even secretly hoped for a so-bad-it’s-good hoot-fest, à la Lost Horizon (1973) or Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1978). But as it turns out, Annie: 2014 caught me completely off guard. It seems the one thing I wasn't expecting was an utterly delightful, thoroughly enchanting musical whose thoughtful and canny updating reclaims the heart of a musical long lost to shrill children’s recitals and hollow theatrical revivals.
I’m light-years away from being the film’s preferred demographic, but as a dancer and longtime fan of movie musicals, I was wholly captivated by Annie’s old-fashioned charm and sentimentality. A well-earned sentimentality that touchingly reaffirms the musical’s simple message that everybody needs to feel loved, and family isn't only something you’re born into.
With two flawed Annie adaptations already committed to celluloid (the overstuffed 1982 film you can read about HERE, and the wan but more faithful-to-the-stage 1999 TV-movie), I was less than thrilled when, back in 2011, actor Will Smith announced plans to produce an Annie remake starring his daughter, Willow. Of course, now, three years later, we can all give thanks for the role growth spurts and sluggish pre-production played in averting that particular disaster, but still, who needed yet another screen incarnation of that irrepressible orphan unless in a significantly reinterpreted form?
Happily, Annie 2014 proves to be just that: a surprisingly funny, disarmingly sweet update of the Broadway musical which, through the clever repurposing of songs, characters, and situations draws amusingly apt parallels between contemporary times and the hard knock life of 1933.
Quvenzhané Wallis’ Annie has the spirit, spunk, and boundless optimism of her comic strip namesake (not to mention the same headful of curly locks), and plot-wise, the film cleaves more to the 1982 John Huston film than the original Broadway production written by Thomas Meehan (with music composed by Charles Strouse and lyricist Martin Charnin). But in spite of the many changes, it’s still the story of a hopeful waif searching for her real parents, and how she comes to warm the capitalist heart of a lonely billionaire through pluck and a cheery outlook. Annie is no longer an orphan, but (more reasonably) a foster child in the resentful care of the embittered, frequently besotted Miss Hannigan (Diaz), a failed dance-pop singer who was unceremoniously dumped from the C + C Music Factory back in the 90s (“I was too good!”) and now has to live off the subsidy income of playing foster mom to five annoying “little girls.”
Daddy Warbucks is now William Stacks (Foxx), a New York mayoral candidate whose standoffish public image is in dire need of the kind of PR rebranding and instant photo-op warmth temporarily taking in a foster kid can provide. Stacks is looked after by Grace Farrell (Byrne), the super-efficient VP of his mobile phone empire, and Guy (Cannavale), his pitbull of a political adviser. Beyond the narrative tweaks necessary to usher what is essentially a 90-year-old character into the 21st Century, Annie follows along the same fairy-tale path as its Broadway-inspired predecessors, retaining just enough of the familiar to evoke nostalgia, yet delivering plenty of (welcome) surprises to make the entire enterprise feel like something entirely fresh and new.
Granted, Annie is not a perfect film and not without its problems. Cameron Diaz’s over-caffeinated approach to the character of Miss Hannigan takes some getting used to (maybe small children will find her funny), events occasionally feel rushed (I know I'm alone in this, but I could have stood a longer running time), and like many musicals that strive to be “of the moment” (Xanadu, anyone?), Annie is in grave danger of looking dated by the time I post this. But in all, I found Annie to be a an fun, enjoyably tuneful re-imagining of Harold Gray's Little Orphan Annie (“Foster kid...” as the certain-her-parents-are-still-alive Annie has to keep reminding everyone) which, thanks in large part to the engaging performance of its adorable 10-year-old star, had me feeling (to quote Scrooge in Dickens' A Christmas Carol) "...as merry as a schoolboy."
Read the rest of this review at Dreams Are What Le Cinema is For...