Annie was in the news long before the film hit the theaters. First, we were told that Willow Smith was going to hold the coveted role. She later backed out, hence the addition of Quvenzhane Wallis. When Sandra Bullock refused to play the part of Miss Hannigan, Cameron Diaz took the role. Likewise, even Ryan Murphy didn’t want to be associated with this project, despite them wanting him to direct, so they ended up with Will Gluck, as a later choice.
The apparent point is to look at this film, not so much as a remake, but more as a modern-day retelling of a beloved musical. Unfortunately, enough remains in this clearly modern day adaptation to compare it to previous versions of the film, and to ultimately be disappointed by this version. I appreciate that Annie is a non-white character. In the 1982 version of the film, Annie was a redheaded little girl. The film itself was set in the early 1900s and the subject of her hair was a big deal. In a sense, she was a minority because of her hair color. It made her different. This difference is something that can be more aptly portrayed, today. It’s great to see a female of color in a lead role that does not devalue her as a person, and does not over stereotype her as a person of color. That is really where my praise of this film ends.
There is a charm to good movie musicals. They are meant to make you feel good. The actors (who can hopefully sing) burst out in song whenever possible, and if the film is good, the music makes sense to the moment you’re watching in the film. If it’s even better, it makes you want to sing along! Annie has the advantage that most everyone knows these songs. What I don’t understand is how Jay-Z was involved, and the music ended up so dreadfully depressing. I am not a Jay-Z fan, by any means, but his rendition of “Hard Knock Life” was far more enjoyable than this roundabout version that is nothing more than a sad reminder that the original is not only superior in writing, it’s also better sung. Greg Kurstin is responsible for the music in Annie, and it is perhaps the biggest disservice of all. If you’re presenting a movie as a musical, you need good music, and actors that are able to sing. Annie has neither.
The best singer in the bunch is Jamie Foxx, who plays the modern day Daddy Warbucks, Will Stacks. In this rendition, Stacks runs a cell phone empire, and he is running for Mayor of NYC. He meets Annie (Wallis), when she runs into him while chasing a dog. His people, Guy (Bobby Cannavale) and Grace (Rose Byrne), convince him to have lunch with her, and ultimately bring her into his home. Like most of the characters in this film, Stacks isn’t all that likable, at least not in the beginning. It’s only when he seems to lose himself in the moment that he is remotely decent.
As a side note, I hope that the film made a lot of money off of product placement, because the amount of Purell that Stacks uses, due to his OCD that he clearly has, should have netted the film something.
Guy (Cannavale) is a new character who takes the role of the missing Rooster. As Rooster is not in the film, Lily St. Regis is also missing. Both characters had musical numbers in the ’82 version, and they played the double role as Annie’s parents. In this version, Annie’s parents are played by Dorian Missick (The Cape) and Tracie Thoms (Rent). The idea that Thoms was underutilized in a film that desperately needed her talents is almost unforgivable. As the result of Rooster and St. Regis being missing, “Easy Street” becomes a duet between Cannavale and Diaz. With the poor performance, and the terrible new lyrics, it becomes one of many disappointments. In many ways, it is the worst musical number, because so many of the setups, including the discovery of the missing half of Annie’s locket, normally occur during this song. Considering Tim Curry and Bernadette Peters were the 80s version of Rooster and Lily (aka Annie’s fake parents), Cannavale and Thoms/Diaz had huge shoes they never could possibly have filled.
As for Wallis, she doesn’t make your ears bleed, but she’s not entirely convincing, either. Her Annie is not emotion-inducing. While her confidence, in a young, female character, is refreshing, it feels out of place in a foster child that has never known the security of a home, cannot read, and currently lives with a pill-popping drunk. Further, the addition of Annie being unable to read is pointless, because it is not truly explored. Annie is and always has been a smart kid. It’s unnecessary and unmotivated to make her illiterate. There is no payoff. They just needed a reason to make her run off the stage, and eventually show that Stacks is coming to care for her, by getting her a tutor. With a little thought, this could have been accomplished in far better ways.
Cameron Diaz wins the award for most incompetent singer. While it’s understood that they needed a Miss Hannigan, they would have been better off not making this film, if that was as low in the barrel they had to sink to find one. Nails scratching on a chalkboard while sitting in an alley listening to cats in heat would have been more entertaining. Diaz’ acting only makes things worse. Her pill popping, drunk Miss Hannigan is a caricature of the character that Carol Burnett played, in the 80s. Not only that, the character is an annoyance. She does not know what she is. She’s bad and opportunistic, until she decides she’s not, sings a song, and does what’s right. The climax, if you want to say there is one, happens, and immediately the film ends with the final musical number. While one could argue this is similar in the original film — the musical number is not in the same moment as Annie being rescued.
It also seems slightly odd that Miss Hannigan is a white woman living in Harlem with about six (or is it seven?!) foster kids. There is some diversity among the children, but in the city, prior to the auditions that Miss Hannigan’s hold to find Annie’s parents, you don’t see any people of color (particularly black people, as there is the one Hispanic store owner). In fact, the only adults you really see are Miss Hannigan and a store owner who is obsessed with her, Lou, played by David Zayas. It just feels strange that in a film that seems to celebrate the diversity found in NYC, that it misses this opportunity to show us Harlem, in all its glory.
Rose Byrne, as Grace, is a weaker character than Grace is meant to be. Grace keeps Warbucks (or in this case, Stacks) together. This Grace, does her job, but she’s also a bumbling, stereotypical female character that is almost unrecognizable from the 80s character played by the delightful, Ann Reinking. Wallis is the only child that gets any notice. While in previous Annie films, the main children were recognizable and distinct, these children are seen but not heard, unrecognizable, and nothing more than extras, with names.
Perhaps the worst parts of the film were the attempts to modernize it. Stacks lives in a smart house. Instead of having the butler, maid, and other characters that would be present in a rich man’s home, Stacks just talks to his walls, and things appear. To put it mildly, it’s a little more wooden than having actors, but it does fill the modernization quotient. Likewise, there are references to things like Twitter that are eye-roll inducing.
With Diaz, Miss Hannigan makes references to her former career in C&C Music Factory (even going as far as shouting out “Everybody Dance Now!” in a musical number), her almost appearance on Arsenio Hall, and how she was almost one of Hootie’s Blowfish. Likewise, in an attempt to feed the homeless, Stacks begins quoting from the theme song of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, obviously a nod to producer, Will Smith. Unfortunately, most of these things would easily go over the heads of the children for whom this film is best suited.
Annie is one of the worst films that I’ve seen, so far, in 2015. Sure, it’s early, but Annie was one of the biggest disappointments I’ve felt in watching anything, recently. I’ve never been a big fan of remakes, but the makers of this film seriously missed the mark. If they wanted to create a modern tale about a cheeky foster kid that has nothing, and ends up finding a family, that would have been great. However, in taking a concept that has already been done, they removed everything that was charming about Annie, and left us with little to write home about.