Quvenzhané Wallis, the eleven-year-old Academy Award nominee, kicks the old “Annie” to the curb in the opening minutes of the reimagined story of a spunky little orphan and her foster father.
The movie begins with a curly haired red head making a presentation in class. With a flourish, she finishes her show-and-tell with a few snappy tap dance moves. Next up is Annie (Wallis) who erases the old image of the Broadway waif with a spirited “Stomp” style opening number.
It doesn’t all work, but the update does make the old “Annie” seem as au courant as “Downton Abbey.”
Set in modern day New York City, “Annie” drops the “orphan” in favor of “foster child.” Abandoned by her parents, her only connection to them is a note scribbled on the back of a restaurant bill. That scrap of paper and her scrappy attitude sustain her as she lives with a group of plucky kids at failed singer Miss Hannigan’s (Cameron Diaz) Dickensian Harlem apartment.
Her ticket out of Hannigan’s hell hole comes in the form of a viral video shot by a citizen journalist. Chasing a stray dog down the street Annie is rescued by the city’s richest citizen and mayoral candidate Will Stacks (Jamie Foxx). Unscrupulous campaign manager Guy (Bobby Cannavale) sees an opportunity to humanize his candidate and asks Annie over for a photo op.
“It’s good PR for my campaign to be seen with you,” Stacks explains to the little girl.
“If I came to live with you, you could become president,” she shoots back.
And thus Annie is invited to live in Stacks’s deluxe apartment in the sky. They form a bond and… blah, blah, blah. You can guess the rest.
Aside from a handful of songs, an overload of cute and shards of a storyline, the new “Annie” has little in common with the original musical. Director and co-screenwriter Will Gluck takes pains to make an “Annie” for a new generation but loses the spirit that made Broadway “Annie” so iconic.
“People love musicals,” he has Miss Hannigan say at one point. “Bursting into song for no apparent reason.” Except in good musicals there is always a reason for characters to burst into song. Annie doesn’t miss any opportunity to sing and dance—it even manages to turn taking out the recycling into a percussive event—but Gluck handles the transitions from dialogue to verse awkwardly. “Are you going to sing to me?” Hannigan asks Guy. “Is this happening?”
Worse, the music isn’t particularly memorable and bland, beat-heavy new school arrangements obscure the lyrics. The music is big, but the voices aren’t. Wallis has a much more natural singing style than he Broadway trained predecessors and gets lost in the mix. Ethel Merman she ain’t. The show was filled with showstoppers—“It’s the Hard-Knock Life” and “Tomorrow” among others—that are reduced in the film to aural wallpaper with choreography that could charitably be described as curious.
Wallis does plucky very well, but is rather one note, not just musically but personality wise as well. Foxx can sing but is saddled with the film’s second worst number, “I Don’t Need Anything But You,” (the “winner” is Diaz’s “Little Girls”) and Cannavale appears to be acting in a Christmas pantomime nobody told the rest of the cast about.
“Annie” is an attempt to recreate an icon for a new age but falls flatter than Miss Hannigan’s high notes.