It’s a hard-knock life for a former orphan and a guy who used to be Daddy Warbucks in this not-so-expertly updated musical
Directed by Will Gluck
Cast: Quvenzhané Wallis, Jamie Foxx, Rose Byrne, Cameron Diaz
You hate to kick a cute little kid when she’s down. For starters, Little Orphan Annie is, well, an orphan. (Actually, in this latest version, she’s been reclassified as a “foster kid”—perhaps because orphans are too depressing). But still. On top of that, her new film Annie was leaked onto the internet after computer pirates (allegedly from North Korea) hacked into Sony Pictures’ servers. Finally, to add insult to injury, the final product has arrived in theaters, and it’s a tone-deaf clunker that will end up satisfying almost no one over the Christmas holidays.
Little Orphan Annie began life as a Depression-era newspaper strip by Harold Gray. It was turned into a hit musical in 1977 and has popped on and off Broadway for decades, landing a notoriously troubled movie version in 1982. For reasons little known and less understood, rap impresario Jay Z borrowed a sample from Annie’s signature tune “It’s the Hard Knock Life” for his 1998 song “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem).” Somehow that inspired Z to produce a modern, African-American cast version of the musical. Jay Z teamed up with Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith, who saw the film as the perfect vehicle for their weird kids. Fortunately, the Smith offspring dropped out, leaving room for Quvenzhané Wallis (the little spark plug from Beasts of the Southern Wild) to step into the title role. She’s pretty much the only bright spot in this flat-footed production.
The opening shot of Annie treats us to the image of an overly plucky redhead tap dancing her way through a school report. She’s quickly hustled off screen, however, in favor of our real Annie (Wallis). It’s meant to be a cheeky little joke cueing audiences to the fact that this is not your parents’ Annie. However, like last year’s The Lone Ranger, it demonstrates considerable contempt for the source material. Who wants to see a plucky, redheaded orphan singing and dancing? Certainly not anyone who would go see a movie version of Annie, right? ... Right?
As mentioned earlier, our new Annie is no longer an orphan, but a foster kid living under the care of failed, faded pop idol Miss Hannigan (Cameron Diaz). Diaz steals nearly every scene she’s in ... in the sense that her heinous overacting amounts to brazen daylight robbery. Diaz was apparently told to camp it up as much as possible, while the other actors were instructed to tone it way down. Wallis, for her part, manages to be sunny without resorting to saccharine. It’s an inspired casting choice, one that makes you wish she had been given a better vehicle in which to show off her talents.
One day, while out conducting her weekly ritual search for her birth parents, Annie crosses paths with cell phone tycoon William Stacks. (OK, who here thought “Bill Stacks” was a better pun than “Oliver Warbucks”?) Seems that Stacks (played with buttoned-down seriousness by Jamie Foxx) is running for mayor but is unable to garner much public sympathy—mostly because he’s a misanthropic, germophobic billionaire. But when he saves Annie from being run over by a bus, he becomes a sudden internet celebrity.
Stacks’ kindhearted assistant Grace (Rose Byrne, looking lovely but having little to do) and his oily campaign manager Guy (Bobby Cannavale, giving the film its one-note villain) are quick to realize the candidate’s brief interaction with cute little Annie has suddenly humanized him. Guy arranges a few photo opportunities between Annie and Stacks, and before you can say “rising poll numbers,” Stacks has become Annie’s temporary guardian. Stacks clearly has no interest in Annie as anything other than a vote generator. Annie, meanwhile, is happy to be a political prop, so long as she gets to stay in a fancy New York penthouse and hand out expensive cell phones to her friends. It’s refreshing to find that the characters are so self-aware, but the message—about the many benefits of materialism—is pretty damn cynical when you think about it.
Writer-director Will Gluck (who did great work on Easy A and meh work on Friends With Benefits) deserves some credit for his heavily updated script. You can tell this is a modern Annie because almost all the plot developments revolve around cell phones, text messaging, Twitter, Vine or Facebook. Most of them are organic enough to work—at least for the kids in the audience. Occasionally, Gluck even manages to pen a good zinger (as when Annie and her pals attend the red-carpet premiere of a ridiculous Twilight-esque blockbuster). He’s markedly less successful, though, when it comes to the directing. As a musical Annie falls painfully flat. Producers apparently wanted some sort of realistic take on the story. But the end result is a musical with no fantasy, no pizzazz and precious little energy. Most of the musical numbers are simply one person singing with no props, no fancy costumes and barely a step or two of choreography. Annie’s iconic number “Tomorrow,” for example, features Annie simply walking down a street in New York singing. Another has her standing on a stage warbling into a microphone. Wallis seems to have a decent voice, and she belts her tunes out just fine. But the film ends up being even more stage-bound than the stage version.
Quvenzhané Wallis probably still has stardom in her future. And even this shallow adaptation can’t stifle the inherent, heartwarming nature of Annie’s rags-to-riches narrative. Despite their disappointment audiences will probably still hum along with a few of the tunes and shed a tear or two at the expected happy ending. But this modern-day take on Little Orphan Annie just gets too much wrong. At one point our heroine explains that Depression-era America was “just like today, only without the internet.” Nice try, but no. Even a dose of winking self-awareness can’t make up for this film’s indecisive tone, cynical message and drab direction.