Director: Will Gluck
Writers: Will Gluck and Aline Brosh McKenna
Cast: Adewale Akinnuoye Agbaje, Rose Byrne, Bobby Cannavale, Zoe Margaret Colletti, Cameron Diaz, Jamie Foxx, Mila Kunis, Stephanie Kurtzuba, Ashton Kutcher, Dorian Missick, Nicolette Pierini, Rihanna, Eden Duncan Smith, Tracie Thoms, Amanda Troya, Quvenzhané Wallis, and David Zayas
It seems I’m the only critic on the World Wide Web to like Will Gluck’s update of Annie. In my defense, I may also have been the only critic remotely interested in a remake of the family classic, itself adapted from a Broadway play based on a newspaper comic strip. Set during the Great Depression, the 1982 musical told of a relentlessly optimistic orphan who inserts herself in the life of a billionaire industrialist and warms the cockles of his heart. With all the recent talk of income inequality and capitalism run amuck, you’d think there’d be more interest in revisiting this thinly veiled metaphor for the American spirit.
Intriguingly, the new Annie opens with our titular heroine (Quvenzhané Wallis) explaining the political subtext of the original before sprinting across contemporary New York as if to remind us that our economy hasn’t really evolved since Franklin Roosevelt left the White House. Soon, the ten-year-old is taken in by Will Stacks (Jamie Foxx), whose name strikes me as a less interesting pun than “Daddy Warbucks”, in an effort to bolster his public image. You see, the cell phone tycoon is running for mayor based on a Tea Party platform (not that the movie ever acknowledges it), making it somewhat of an embarrassment that he can’t relate to the struggling masses.
Ironically, Stacks grew up among the ninety-nine percent and only lost touch with his community as a result of copying his father, who worked himself into an early grave. Some will interpret this revelation as a simplistic motivation for the character’s functional workaholism, but I prefer to see it as Gluck pointing out an inherently dehumanising aspect of the American dream. The notion ties into Annie’s own secret, which I’ll refrain from spoiling except to say that her newfound vulnerability serves as a healthy reminder of what happens when we give our children opportunity without the basic tools to use it (i.e. education).
It occurs to me that the new Annie brims with pathos. Consider the way Gluck and co-screenwriter Aline Brosh McKenna transform Pepper (Amanda Troya), depicted in the original as a spiteful bully, into a well-intentioned cynic protecting the other kids from Annie’s fairytale delusions. It’s not a major plot point, but I appreciate the depth added to an otherwise generic antagonist. The same can be said of our heroine’s foster mother, Mrs Hannigan (Cameron Diaz), whose alcoholism is now tied to “would-be star” syndrome, though not of Stack’s overzealous publicist, Guy (Bobby Cannavale), who replaces Rooster as the film’s irredeemable bastard.
Otherwise, Annie plays more or less like the original, with the effortlessly charming Quvenzhané Wallis brightening up the screen much as Aileen Quinn did in 1982. It’s worth noting, however, that neither she nor Rose Byrne, who portrays Stacks’ lovelorn assistant, can dance. Gluck does his best to hide this shortcoming with a barrage of quick cuts and awkward close-ups, or perhaps he’s just following the current Hollywood trend of shooting musical numbers like low-rent pop videos for the ADD-afflicted.
In case you’re wondering, yes, all the music has been updated to include that synthetic dance beat one finds in every Disney Channel remix. Annie also features three new songs to compete at the Oscars, including a soulful ballad about opportunities for Wallis to show off her voice and a random mishmash of notes called “The City’s Yours”. The alleged ode to New York sticks out like a sore thumb dipped in computer-generated glitter, drawing more from Foxx’ auto-tuned discography than anything Charles Strouse and Martin Charnin might have composed for the original Broadway play.
Still, I expect fans of Annie will appreciate this new take on the material, if only for its irreverent nods to the original. Have you ever wondered as a child what the phrase “It’s a hard-knock life” means? Well, so has little Mia (Nicolette Pierini), and she’s willing to interrupt a dance number to find out. You see, Gluck is addressing an audience that loves the franchise but can still poke fun at it. I guess that doesn’t include a lot of critics today…
Note: Midway into Annie, Stacks invites our heroine to a movie premiere. The film, called Moon Quake Lake, stars Mila Kunis and Ashton Kutcher as teenage lovers fighting to prevent a mermaid war with their fluorescent tears. The few excerpts we get to see are worth the price of admission alone.
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