Annie (2014) lands in an uninventive middle ground – it isn’t necessary (or an improvement) but it isn’t a total disaster either.
Annie once again reimagines the tale of Little Orphan Annie (Quvenzhané Wallis), abandoned for unknown reasons by her parents at a young age, and raised in New York City’s foster program. Convinced that one day she’ll be reunited with her mother and father, Annie maintains a cheerful outlook in all aspects of her life – regularly sharing optimism (and musical numbers) with her friends and fellow orphans. Still, no amount of smiles will charm Annie’s foster mother, Miss Colleen Hannigan (Cameron Diaz), a washed-up C+C Music Factory singer whose brief stint in show business left her bitter and broke.
However, when a chance encounter with Annie gives billionaire and aspiring New York City mayor, Will Stacks (Jamie Foxx), a bump in pre-voting polls, the pair agree to a mutually beneficial arrangement. In exchange for public appearances and pictures, Annie gets to live with Stacks in his Manhattan penthouse. That is until their straightforward business agreement begins to change – as Annie brings out a new, and more sensitive, side to the work-obsessed tech mogul. Worried that his candidate has become too distracted to win the mayoral race, Stacks’ chief campaign advisor, Guy (Bobby Cannavale) teams-up with Miss Hannigan to help find Annie’s parents (read: find a couple who can pretend to be Annie’s parents) – knowing that a family reunion will secure the race for Stacks (and remove Annie from the picture).
Annie has been depicted multiple times across a wide variety of mediums. Inspired by James Whitcomb Riley’s 1885 poem, “Little Orphan Annie,” the character made her first appearance as a print comic in 1924 (via cartoonist Harold Gray). In the years since, Annie stories have been adapted for radio, TV, film as well as broadway. Early iterations were extensions of the print comic story, but the most well known Annie adaptations (the 1977 musical and 1982 film) actually took liberties with the source material – exploring the beloved character’s origins in greater detail.
To that end, the 2014 remake shares more in common with the 1977 musical and 1982 film than the original print comic – once again retelling the story of how Annie moved from abusive foster care to a luxurious life with William Stacks (formerly Oliver “Daddy” Warbucks). As a result, Will Gluck’s adaptation isn’t the hollow cash grab that Annie fans were dreading (it’s clear the director and his cast are passionate about the material); still, in spite of good intentions, the 2014 film rarely improves on prior versions – simply modernizing the story with contemporary musical arrangements, hip New York City locales, up-to-date product placement, and a more diverse cast (a laudable change).
While many cinephiles will argue that a new Annie movie did not need to be made, Gluck’s film will entertain younger viewers – bringing the iconic story (and its still timely themes) to a new generation. Despite Jay-Z and Will Smith sitting in producer chairs, the movie doesn’t stray too far in reinventing the Annie soundscape – especially since frequent collaborators Sia and Greg Kurstin were responsible for arrangement of the musical numbers as well as four new songs: “Opportunity”, “Who Am I”, “MoonQuake Lake”, and “The City’s Yours”. To that end, songs like “It’s a Hard Knock Life” do the original musical justice – while also serving up onscreen choreography/shenanigans that will keep children engaged.
Nevertheless, adults may find that in trying to emulate the playful humor of the musical, Gluck’s adaptation comes across as more cheesy than cheeky – with a number of eye-rolling gags/melodramatic encounters that are at odds with the story’s modern backdrop and emotional through line. Injecting a cheerful 1930s ragamuffin into a refurbished plot that also includes blood-thirsty paparazzi as well as camouflaged cell phone towers was always going to be a filmmaking challenge and, unfortunately, the juxtaposition undermines, rather than bolsters, key aspects of the Annie story.
Quvenzhané Wallis (Beasts of the Southern Wild) checks-off all prerequisites for a likable portrayal of Annie – selling the character’s bright-eyed and capable, yet vulnerable, personality. Even when the larger film takes itself too seriously, or becomes too campy, Wallis provides a heartfelt and (often) nuanced performance. Whether audiences respond to the full film or not, Wallis clearly enjoyed her time in the role – and that passion elevates the entire production (along with performances from several co-stars).
Scenes between the principle cast, Foxx, Wallis, and Rose Byrne (playing Grace Farrell), are solid and, even when their character arcs are pretty flat, Foxx and Byrne make the most of their screen time, exploring new layers in Stacks and Grace as well as holding their own in song and dance numbers. Conversely, Cameron Diaz delivers an uneven turn as Miss Hannigan – overplaying the wicked foster mother schtick only to find a more relatable (and believable) version of the character as the film unfolds. Bobby Cannavale also leans on mustache-twirling caricature, instead of quirk, but even if Guy is too on the nose, it’s still entertaining to watch the character interact with members of the supporting cast (especially Hannigan).
In a time when reboots, remakes, and re-imaginings represent a significant portion of the films that arrive in theaters, Annie (2014) lands in an uninventive middle ground – it isn’t necessary (or an improvement) but it isn’t a total disaster either. Longtime Annie fans may enjoy seeing how Gluck has updated the story for modern times, and musical trends, while younger filmgoers are sure to laugh at plenty of Annie’s zanier moments, and on-the-nose-gags. That said, for Annie purists, vocal skeptics, and moviegoers who simply haven’t been enticed by the film’s trailers, Gluck doesn’t differentiate his Annie enough, or in any particularly inventive ways, to make the 2014 remake a must-see – especially now that Sony Pictures has released the best gag online: Chris Miller and Phil Lord’s MoonQuake Lake trailer.
Annie runs 118 minutes and is Rated PG for some mild language and rude humor.
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