ANNIE, the feature film adapted from the 1977 Broadway musical, which in turn is an adaptation of the Great Depression-era comic strip Little Orphan Annie, is a film with a lot of cultural baggage. The kind of baggage that you just don’t want to be lifting today in your post-Yuletide haze. So setting aside the remake and adaptation bizzo for a few paragraphs, what is 2014 post GFC-era ANNIE about? And most importantly, should you and your children check it out?
Ten-year-old Annie Bennett (Quvenzhané Wallis) lives in Harlem with four other foster children. Their guardian is Colleen Hannigan (Cameron Diaz), a resentful, alcoholic woman who makes money from her care of the children. She is self-involved, scheming and delights in making life miserable for her young charges.
Annie is a definite A-type. She is an eternally chipper go-getter who believes at some point her parents will return to get her. Nothing deters her from this dream. One day she runs into telephone billionaire Will Stacks (Jamie Foxx). Their encounter gives Stacks some excellent press which is something he desperately needs because he is running for Mayor of New York. The decision is made that young Annie Bennett needs to spend more time with the billionaire and therefore help out his mayoral campaign. This situation is manipulated by his campaign manager Guy (Bobby Cannavale). When Miss Hannigan sees what Annie is involved in, she plots to turn this to her monetary advantage. Meanwhile Annie and Stacks bond like father and daugher. Something similar happens with Annie and Stacks’ personal assistant Grace (Rose Byrne). Suddenly Annie has people in her life who seem like surrogate parents.
Now back to you. If you are in a multiplex, headed towards ANNIE with money in hand and children in tow and you’re asking yourself, “Will this movie keep the kids entertained and not lacerate my cerebral cortex?” then the answer is yes to the first and a qualified yes to the second.
The film is pitched at a young audience and has some relatively amusing material for the older folk. Kids will be entertained and touched by Annie and the other foster children searching for their place in the world. In fact, if screenwriter Aline Brosh McKenna (The Devil Wears Prada and 27 Dresses) and director Will Gluck (Easy A) had stuck to writing and directing a non-musical adaptation of the musical stage show, then this we could have graded this movie an Easy C+. Byrne and Foxx have some funny by-play in their awkward relationship. However there is that matter of cultural baggage that we mentioned earlier. It is weightier and more unwieldy than Lady Sarah’s Prada suitcases in Baz Luhrmann’s Australia.
If anyone in the audience for ANNIE 2014 has seen the beloved 1982 film adaptation directed by John Huston, then the new film suffers by comparison. That first film is set in the Great Depression and the attitudes of the characters and the gags flow from that. The kids have it tough at a time when the entire nation is suffering. The graspingness of Hannigan and some of the other villianous characters makes perfect sense in a world where money has disappeared. The large musical set pieces in the shabby orphanage are well-staged and memorable. In this way, ANNIE the 1982 film and the stage musical is much like OLIVER! (Carol Reed’s film and Lionel Bart’s musical) with girl characters in the centre of the narrative. 1920s New York is a tough world where everyone is fighting to survive.
Updated ANNIE doesn’t have this kind of drive, either in plot terms or in its musical choices. It more or less refuses to deal with the issue of class or money, even obliquely. Many of the musical numbers are changed as part of the update and those that remain, often suffer from underwhelming staging. Director Gluck actually manages to fumble the “Tomorrow” sequence. This is the one song that even non-ANNIE fans know and it should be a lump-to-the-throat show-stopper.
There is plenty of talent in this movie, but it isn’t always best served by the writer and director. Cameron Diaz has taken a lot of blame for not equalling Carol Burnett’s truly stellar performance in the 1982 movie, but this is somewhat unfair. She has her moments, but none of the bits fly where she throws herself at men to a negative result. Why not? Because she looks like Cameron Diaz. This routine-that Burnett excelled at-simply needed to be reworked for Diaz. ANNIE 2014 does have some great performances from the child cast. Quvenzhané Wallis is excellent in the title role. The kids really know how to sing and dance and there are some good scenes when we get to see this. The real problem is this movie doesn’t have a clear, new identity that satisfyingly pays off all the attempts at modernisation.
ANNIE is a passable entertainment for familes that are not acquainted with the better-known 1982 movie. I rated it 4/10.