Academy Award nominee Quvenzhané Wallis (Beasts of the Southern Wild) stars as Annie, a young, happy foster kid who’s also tough enough to make her way on the streets of New York in 2014. Originally left by her parents as a baby with the promise that they’d be back for her someday, it’s been a hard knock life ever since with her mean foster mom Miss Hannigan (Cameron Diaz). But everything’s about to change when the hard-nosed tycoon and New York mayoral candidate Will Stacks (Jamie Foxx) – advised by his brilliant VP, Grace (Rose Byrne) and his shrewd and scheming campaign advisor, Guy (Bobby Cannavale) – makes a thinly-veiled campaign move and takes her in. Stacks believes he’s her guardian angel, but Annie’s self-assured nature and bright, sun-will-come-out-tomorrow outlook on life just might mean it’s the other way around.
It’s a hard knock life, indeed.
The character of Little Orphan Annie has seen her share of reinventions over the last 90 years, going from a comic strip to radio, to film, to Broadway, then back to film. Regardless of format, or how successful the format’s been, the character of Annie has endured as a classic. Her latest reinvention may be the most drastic one yet, though: Annie gets a 21st century makeover in the new film Annie, which draws inspiration (like its two previous film predecessors) from the Broadway show while updating characters, song and setting.
The most obvious change: Quvenzhané Wallis steps into the role of Annie, helping to sever the character from her typical pale-faced, red-headed image. Daddy Warbucks, meanwhile, becomes Will Stacks, a self-made mogul played by Jamie Foxx. There’s also a shift away from Annie and her friends being orphans to foster kids, plus some changes in supporting characters to streamline things. Throw in some pop culture references, classics from the Broadway version updated lyrically and added to by singer/songwriter Sia, and what do you have?
A big freakin’ dud. Let’s tackle this point by point.
First, the casting is off. This one’s important. I get the appeal of Wallis, I really do. She’s tremendous and natural in Beasts of the Southern Wild. Here, she feels forced. Annie is an almost eternally optimistic child, and while Wallis has a likable charm, she can’t pull off the positive attitude with ease. This becomes more apparent with a scene midway through the film where Annie is forced to admit that she can’t read; in that moment, Wallis is able to convey Annie’s hurt, anger and fear all at once, and it’s great. Wallis works well with that kind of material. But it’s the only time she’s able to go there.
As the adult protagonists, Jamie Foxx and Rose Byrne come off okay. There’s some chemistry with Wallis they both show. Foxx does feel a little too young for this, and it may have been better if Stacks and Annie didn’t bond quite as quickly as they do.
Where the film really drops the ball with casting, though, is with the antagonists. Cameron Diaz’s take on Miss Hannigan is broad. It feels like it’s part of a different, wackier film. There are points where it’s amusing enough, but maybe in part because Wallis’ Alice is so chipper, there’s no real menace with Hannigan here. Meanwhile, Bobby Cannavale’s Guy is the film’s new character, here serving as a strange hybrid of the Punjab and Rooster characters from previous versions.
On the subject of the cast’s talents: did no one think about singing and dancing auditions? The only cast member who can arguably sing is Jamie Foxx, and he sings “This City’s Yours” in a way that would work better if the girl he was singing to was a grown woman. Outside of that, no one can really sing. As for dancing, I don’t know whether the actors can’t really dance or the choreographer was just abysmal.
At least the number of musical numbers is relatively reduced, though the combined lack of vocal ability and pop production from Greg Kurstin just make the material falter. The songs that do work in some way are performed by Sia, who can sell a song pulling lyrics from a telephone book. That includes both original material, like “Opportunity,” and classics like “You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile.” Still, the film may have worked better with more (maybe even all?) original songs, performed by Sia instead of the characters.
There are some interesting ways the film updates the musical to fit modern times. Stacks’ large mansion with servants is replaced by a penthouse with A.I., There’s a prominent use of social media, especially at the film’s end. It’ll all be more catchy to children than the adults accompanying them, but it’s there at least.
It’s not a good sign, though, when the most memorable part is a joke film inside the film. Seriously. As they’ve done in other versions of the story, Stacks and Annie go to the movies. The movie they’re going to see, MoonQuake Lake, includes stilted Y.A. dialogue and cheesy supernatural effects with a cast that apparently includes Mila Kunis, Ashton Kutcher and Rihanna, and includes a prominent credit to The Lego Movie and 22 Jump Street directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller. It’s ridiculous, but based on what they’ve done with other seemingly awful ideas, I wouldn’t mind checking out MoonQuake Lake.
I used to say the same thing about Will Gluck. His last two films, Easy A and Friends with Benefits, are two films I truly enjoy, and I credit him with a large portion of those films’ successes. Here, though, it just doesn’t work. Maybe he wasn’t truly interested in the material. Maybe there was studio interference, or production difficulties. Who knows, outside of maybe the terrorists currently wreaking havoc on Sony.
Regardless, this is a mess. Kids very well may enjoy it, but for their parents who grew up with the 1982 film (which itself wasn’t a critical success), this will be a hard one to watch.