Annie, the stage musical, is pretty hoary, but boy is it fun. So is this somewhat inventive, relentlessly sunny update – to a point. If I was a nine year old girl, this would be the best movie I could even imagine. Who cares about the plot? An orphan wants to “find” her parents; instead a rich man with a cold heart finds that heart warmed by said orphan. Song and dance! In this case, with plenty of autotune.
Previous film versions of Annie have been “classic” versions, but this one updates the text like the Donmar Warehouse takes on a play, if the Donmar Warehouse had autotune. All the songs have been relentlessly rearranged for the Beyoncé generation, adding as much body percussion (if that’s what you call slapping your own body) as possible. The kids seem to sing in their own voices, very few of them pretty. The acting is, like the singing, often spare and untrained. And there lies some charm, although not a huge amount. The thing is rough, wild and wooly, and kids are gonna love it. But, the longer it goes, the more it strays from the original musical, and the more cause there is for fans to dislike it.
As Annie, Quvenzhané Wallis, who was so brilliant in Beasts of the Southern Wild, simply doesn’t make it her own – by a country mile – and it’s glaringly obvious that her performance has had to be dealt with in the editing room in a less than loving way. She’s cut into, she says her line, and she’s cut away from as quickly as possible, therefore creating a cypher at the heart of the movie – it’s an Annie without an Annie. She’s way too obviously directed – “Look here! Smile here!” – and never believable. The fact that the filmmakers never let her breathe is a worrying concept: did they only cast her because she was Oscar nominated for Beasts? She certainly can’t sing, and one would have thought that would have been a pre-requisite for this role.
As for the rest, Rose Byrne (as Big Daddy’s secretary Grace) does the best work in the film (hello!), with a winning combination of – well, everything. Byrne is the best actor in the game at the moment for this sort of thing. Jaime Foxx, as Big Daddy, seems deeply uncomfortable throughout. Bobby Cannavale gives a spirited try at a mischievous character who is both not in, and a bit of a stand-in for a character in, the original show. Finally, Cameron Diaz does a fine job of Miss Hannigan, which may account for her rather extraordinary amount of screen time. Sometimes the film seems not like Annie but Hannigan. Diaz, remember, won us all over in the comedy realm (There’s Something About Mary) and she gives a big and satisfying comedy reading here.
Don’t let anyone cheat you into thinking this is a “Black Annie,” or some sort of Deep Urban Annie. This Annie is as fanciful as it gets, with every level of wish-fulfilment – and every level of urban fantasy – as the stage play, despite its black leads. It’s a stylised movie taking place in a ludicrous Manhattan-as-Kingdom-Come neverland of pure moviemagic. It has no politics and bears no political scrutiny. Its “backness” is superficial, in the sense that nothing about the movie speaks to any sense of the black experience, nor the poor experience. Even the poor kids seem well-off. I’ve seen more realistic urchins (the word “orphan” is verboten in this film) on stage, in lily-white, traditional productions.
I can’t imagine being the songwriter of the originals, listening to this film. I’d tear my heart out and die. It doesn’t sound good. With the exception of Hard Knock Life, which is beautifully conceived, the songs have been mangled and many are unrecognisable (or cut). There are a few new ones, one of which is actually quite lovely and the others, forgettable. The plot has been twisted like a Rubik’s Cube (take that, Gen Zeds!) so that you go “Ah, they’re using that character to do that plot point from the show!” But most of the plot has been jettisoned altogether. Don’t expect a Barack Obama number, let alone We’d Like To Thank You George W. This Annie never goes to the White House. She’s too enamoured with her penthouse.