Annie is the “turn that frown upside down” musical seemingly custom-built for stagestruck kids. But in writer/director/songsmith Will Gluck’s updating, it breaks out of the greasepaint shuffle-step limbo it’s been consigned to and makes a bold dash for the spotlight. Gluck opens with a swerve, showing us a precocious and stagestruck young ginger Annie holding her classmates to ransom with a show-and-tell delivered with weapons-grade winsomeness. Then swivels to reveal that this isn’t the titular Annie, but another one. The Annie we’re interested in is played by Quvenzhané Wallis, the cute kid from Beasts of the Southern Wild.
And god is she cute. A bright little button who is the making of this singing, dancing entertainment that is to the Little Orphan Annie comic strip what Oliver! was to Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist.
The plot remains the same as it was in the 1982 filmed version starring Aileen Quinn and Albert Finney, with Wallis as the spunky orphan kid who is treated heartlessly by Cameron Diaz’s foster-parent Hannigan, and then cynically taken up as a vote-catching gimmick by Jamie Foxx’s billionaire running for mayoral office, the kid winning through by sheer pluck, optimism and can-do spirit and melting the heart of the businessman en route.
It could easily make you sick, this relentlessly upbeat tone, delivered with boosterish stage-school enthusiasm by a cast heavy with brats, and ickle orphan brats at that. But the cast largely pull it off, Diaz the only one who seems out of place as the overly pantomime Hannigan, while Foxx does a nice line in machiavellian cape-twirling, Bobby Cannavale similarly sulphurous as one of the magnate’s wonks, an ugly sister role.
Everyone knows at least one number from Annie – Tomorrow, perhaps, or Hard Knock Life, or I Think I’m Going to Like It Here, and if this production reminds us of anything, it’s how good Strouse and Charnin’s original songs are, and how chirpilly similar to Lionel Bart’s for Oliver! too. And the couple of new additions ease in neatly alongside the old ones, no problem there.
Updating is evident in other areas – this is a film very keen to point out how Twittery/YouTubey it is, which is going to look very old very soon, but it’s also full of single disappointed women who, you can’t help feeling, just need a good man to sort them out – Rose Byrne as the another of Foxx’s aides, with a pash for the boss, Stephanie Kurtzuba as a dried up social-services drone, Diaz’s disappointed, spinsterish Hannigan, who was once “almost one of Hootie’s Blowfish”.
In this respect it’s a very old-fashioned Hollywood movie, but it does at least know how to deliver old-school Hollywood tingles, as when Annie gets on stage and delivers an impromptu song, the orchestra magically falling in with her, Fred Astaire style.
The “black Annie” this has been called. And, for sure, Wallis is black, so is Foxx, and doubtless producers Will and Jada Pinkett Smith had an agenda when they were doing the casting. But why shouldn’t they? It’s their money. The bigger questions are does it matter and does it work. No is the answer to the first, yes to the second.
And talking of race, the only mis-step the film makes is in its race (feeble-play-on-words alert) to the rushed big finale which is really the only thing that takes the gloss off this zippy, peppy, bright and occasionally tear-jerking film whose out-takes (over the end credits) suggest everyone making it had a hell of a good time.
© Steve Morrissey 2014