With Quvenzhané Wallis, Cameron Diaz, Jamie Foxx, Rose Byrne, Bobby Cannavale. Written by Will Gluck and Aline Brosh McKenna Directed by Will Gluck. Rated PG for some mild language and rude humor. 118 minutes.
There’s a special place in hell for the perpetrators of ANNIE, not so much for the unconventional casting as for the shamelessly misleading advertising campaign trying to convince people they’re going to be seeing a film version of the beloved Broadway musical. Other than a handful of characters and songs, this has nothing at all to do with it. If they had been honest about it one might be inclined to be charitable, but this was about the fast buck.
The biggest changes, of course, were moving the story from the depths of the Depression to the present, and making Annie (Quvenzhané Wallis) an African-American orphan. Pardon, not an “orphan.” She and the others under the guardianship of the venal Miss Hannigan (a woefully miscast Cameron Diaz) are “foster children.” In one of the few songs to survive the transition–“It’s A Hard-Knock Life”–the word “orphanage” has been banished. One might never have guessed that the show was based on a long-running comic strip called “Little Orphan Annie.”
Gone, too, is Daddy Warbucks. He’s been replaced by Will Stacks (Jamie Foxx), an entrepreneur who runs a cell phone empire and is running for mayor of New York. The story involves his sleazy campaign manager (Bobby Canavale) convincing him to let Annie move in with him after a video of Stacks rescuing Annie from the path of a truck goes viral. Isn’t that so up-to-date? Of course, the signature anthem “Tomorrow” remains, but more out of a sense of obligation.
By moving the story to the present, a lot of the charm of the show is lost. Songs like “We’d Like To Thank You, Herbert Hoover” and “We’re Getting A New Deal for Christmas” are gone. The send-up of ‘30s pop tunes–“You’re Never Fully Dressed Without A Smile”–gets short shrift, dropping the girls doing their version of it. A few other songs are heard in snatches or in the background, one in a campaign ad involving Mayor Harold Gray. That last is either an affection wink or a thumbing of the nose at the real Harold Gray, creator of the original comic strip.
Wallis (“Beasts of the Southern Wild”) is appropriate spunky as Annie, and Rose Byrne is a genial foil as Stacks’ right-hand woman, but the rest of the cast ranges from giving it their best shot (Foxx, Canavale) to embarrassing (Diaz). Indeed, Diaz is an actress who has shown a wide range in her performances, but playing Miss Hannigan as an aging has-been rock singer was a bad choice regardless of who made it.
Which brings us to Will Gluck, best known for sleazy sex comedies (“Easy A,” “Friends with Benefits”) who is probably the last person who should have been trusted with “Annie.” Well, maybe the next to last person. Quentin Tarentino’s version of “Annie” likely would have been even less faithful to its source but probably would have been a lot more interesting, even if it were four-and-a-half hours long, split into two films, and shown only in theaters that still have a working 35mm rig. It’s hard to believe that something could make John Huston’s incredible misfire from 1982 look good, but this does. The sun may come out tomorrow, but “Annie” is destined to come out on DVD sooner rather than later.
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His most recent book is Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.