A film review by Craig J. Koban January 7, 2015


2014, PG, 118 mins.


Quvenzhané Wallis as Annie  /  Jamie Foxx as Will Stacks  /  Rose Byrne as Grace  /  Cameron Diaz as Miss Hannigan  /  Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje as Nash    

Directed by Will Gluck  /  Written by Will Gluck and Aline Brosh McKenna

ANNIE is a strange cinematic occurrence.  It’s a movie remake of a movie adaptation of a Broadway musical remake of a classic comic strip.  

Of course, this new big screen version of ANNIE is technically the third if one considers the 1982 John Huston film and the 1999 ABC TV iteration (which is not half bad at all).  All of these films owe their existence to the 1977 Broadway stage production (it ran for over six years), which, in turn, was an update on the 1924 Harold Gray comic strip LITTLE ORPHAN ANNIE.  To say that any new movie version of ANNIE has fairly sizeable shoes to fill would be an understatement, not to mention that some revitalizing changes – while staying true to the very essence of the original musical – would certainly need to be made in order to make any new film feel fresh to contemporary audiences.  Otherwise, what would be the point, then? 

Director Will Gluck (whom previously made the wonderful Emma Stone high school comedy EASY A) understands this by rooting his version of ANNIE in the original story, but nevertheless makes sizeable alterations (including time period changes and a most invigorating change of ethnicity for the title character).  Specifically, he alters the setting from 1930’s Depression era to present day New York (a place and time where economic disparity still reigns supreme) and makes some key changes to the Oliver Warbucks character; he’s now William Stacks, a billionaire mobile phone mogul that has aspirations of running for mayor.  Little orphan Annie doesn't live in an orphanage anymore, but rather in a foster home.  Most of the iconic and memorable songs are intact, albeit with tweaks here and there to accommodate referencing to the present day.  All of these retrofitted modifications are kind of wonderful, but ANNIE frustratingly never really soars as the toe-tapping delight that I was expecting.  It’s got heart and earnest intentions, but lacks spunk and energy. 



What ANNIE does have, though, is the wonderful Quvenzhane Wallis - the empowered young actress that became the youngest Oscar nominated performer in history for her towering work in BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD – who’s wonderfully cast as the titular character, despite being somewhat disappointingly mannered and lacking in naturalness in her performance.  The film sets its aspirations to be different right from the get-go with a sly shot at previous incarnations of ANNIE.  We see a New York elementary classroom that shows a red haired girl – that looks conspicuously like the classic Annie of old – delivering an oral report to her classmates.  The film’s “real” Annie in Wallis then quickly replaces her, who then delivers a musical speech about President Roosevelt’s New Deal and Depression era hardships in general.  Considering that red-haired Caucasian girls have populated every other previous ANNIE production, Gluck introducing us to Wallis in this manner is kind of amusingly inspired.  

Obviously, this new Annie lives in a modern technological world of smart phones, YouTube, Twitter, and Instagram, which makes it rather fitting that she’s “saved,” so to speak, by a business tech giant.  One day while cavorting around on the streets of Manhattan she’s nearly run over by a car, but William Stacks (a very game and very committed Jamie Fox) steps in to save her.  Usually, he’s a man that has only his own imperatives and needs front and center.  He recently developed a remarkable smart phone that never drops a call (at least in New York), and after becoming a business sensation he has decided to make a hasty bid for the mayor’s office.  Unfortunately, Will is a bit of a stiff shirt that suffers from many public indiscretions while trying to look good on camera.  He’s so damn uncomfortable in his own skin that he cleanses his hands with sanitizer in fits of OCD behavior. 

Predictably, Will’s unscrupulous campaign aide (Bobby Cannavale) thinks that Will should take Annie in to appease the one per center voters that hate him and the 99 per cent he represents.  This plan somewhat turns off Will’s kind assistant (Rose Byrne, radiating good will and sass), but he relents and allows Annie into his fold, which really turns off her foster home caretaker, Miss Hannigan (Cameron Diaz, woefully and embarrassingly all over the performance map).  The rest of the film unfolds in a fairly preordained manner, featuring the icy cold billionaire having his heart melt the more time he spends with the innocent, free wheeling, and full of life Annie.  Obligatorily, setbacks ensue, misunderstandings occur, and eventual reconciliation happens, which leads to a rosy and happy ending for all.  None of this should surprise any familiar with ANNIE lore. 

The new change of time period for ANNIE is compelling and welcome.  It’s always interesting to see classic characters re-worked and reconfigured for modern day consumption.  Even though the new ANNIE doesn’t have the lower and working class sense of downtrodden struggle that the Dirty Thirties versions of the character had, Gluck’s film still grounds itself in class disparity while honing in on how today's prevailing social media – combined with political imagery, poll numbers, and election coverage – can warp those like Will to become people they don’t want to be.  ANNIE has its finger on the pop culture pulse of America in how the media twists perception of reality and how those behind the scenes use it to their advantage.  All in all, this intriguingly progressive minded and retooling of ANNIE works. 

But, what about the songs and music?  Many of the classic tunes are still intact will pop music modifications.  Some are decent, but a majority of them lack a free wheeling sense of fun, spontaneity, and vivaciousness.  The choreography of many of the numbers also registers flatly at times and some – including a God awful rendition of "Easy Street" with Diaz and Cannavale – elicits more disapproving groans from audience members than it should have.  Even potential showstoppers like “Hard Knock Life” and “Tomorrow” lack emotional intensity; they kind of just come and listlessly go by without much joyous fanfare.  I’m not sure if this has a considerable amount to do with the film being populated with non-singers or Gluck’s clumsy and uninspired handling of these sequences. 

Fox and Wallis, though, have extraordinary chemistry and solid vocal range as singers.  Wallis gets by considerably on adorably nimble charisma alone and Foxx can play handsome and debonair leading men with socially awkward underpinnings in his sleep.  Rose Byrne – even being saddled with a one-note potential romantic suitor role – brings class, dignity, and sweetness to her part.  Diaz, regrettably, is so broad and embarrassingly manic that someone should have prescribed Ritalin to her on set.  Alas, there’s much to like in ANNIE: its wonderfully necessary multicultural take on the classic character, its noteworthy time period adjustments, its story’s easygoing optimism, and its two lead actors, both of whom are sublimely watchable on screen together.  The musical numbers contained within the film, however, just didn’t cheerfully linger with me after leaving the screening.  ANNIE possesses ample good will, but as a movie musical, it’s kind of flat and tone deaf.


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