"It's okay, I'm good at this part. I've had a lot of practice getting kicked out of places."
The modern updating/remake of the community theatre stalwart Annie is a bit of a conundrum for my generation. Most of the people around my age grew up with John Huston's 1982 film version of the show, and many of those same kids who grew up loving that film now have children of their own ripe for introduction to its numerous charms. Then along comes this reimagining of the musical for the 21st century, and while it's admittedly a much more diverse and far less offensive version of the story (Punjab, anyone?), it also begs the question, do the kids of today really need everything tailor made for their sensibilities?
Believe me when I tell you that such a question is far headier than the makers of this movie could have ever intended. However, from the minute this project was announced, it seemed like it was simply being made to be as different as possible from the original while still maintaining enough elements of the original to guarantee a built-in audience. Leaving the theater after sitting through two mind-numbing hours of auto-tuned versions of songs I've known since I was a child, I was left wondering why they really felt the need to even remake Annie. Why not take the elements of Annie and make something that's not overtly beholden to such familiar source material?
Had this film simply been titled some other girl's name, I wouldn't have to sit here and lament to you over the loss of much of Charles Strouse & Martin Charnin's clever wordplay from the original. They could have used wholly original songs or repurposed popular music for their own ends. Because they chose not to, though, we're now forced to hear an impeccably crafted lyric like, "No one cares for you a smidge/When you're in an orphanage," replaced with "No one cares for you a bit/When you're a foster kid." Moves like that, and there are a lot of them in this film, are only going to make people wonder why these filmmakers didn't just start from scratch.
The answer to that question basically gets to the heart of the problem with modern studio filmmaking in general, which is that there are no risks being taken at all anymore. A property has to have a built-in recognition with audiences, otherwise the studios fear that no one will turn out to see them. It's what leads to phrases like "From the creators of..." getting more prominent placement than the name of a project. Annie has just sort of turned into the scapegoat for all of my issues with the state of film in 2014, but it's a worthy scapegoat, because it represents all of the myriad issues I have in microcosm.
For anyone unfamiliar with the story of Annie, it follows the converging lives of an orphan girl named Annie (Quvenzhané Wallis) and a lonely billionaire (Jamie Foxx), who are brought together by fate at a time when they need each other the most. In this film's case, Annie needs a family and—sigh—Will Stacks needs an image boost to help his flagging mayoral run against Harold Gray, a nod to the original creator of Little Orphan Annie, and one of the film's only legitimately clever conceits. Following an encounter on the streets that boosts Stacks' public opinion, he sends his assistant Grace (Rose Byrne) to retrieve Annie from the foster home run by Ms. Hannigan (Cameron Diaz) and come live in Stacks' home for the duration of his campaign, mainly because nothing says to voters "I give a damn" quite like taking in a needy kid.
Over time, the two grow to love one another, but circumstances drive them apart only to reunite them in the end, so that everyone can live happily ever after. Because the film softens the antagonism of Ms. Hannigan, presumably because the studio was afraid to incur the wrath of foster parents everywhere, they instead invent an antagonist for this film in the guise of Stacks' campaign manager Guy (Bobby Cannavale). With his generic name and devious political dealings, he's the perfect 21st century antagonist: A weaselly white guy trying to take the easy road to success. The tenuous partnership between him and Ms. Hannigan makes sense, but giving her a redemptive arc that makes him the fall guy for all of the trouble to come doesn't, but again, Sony's got enough problems without foster moms beating down their doors.
There are a handful of positive things I can say about this film. Rose Byrne and Jamie Foxx are both very good, and thankfully spend a lot of time on screen. They're also probably the only two performers not using auto-tune, which plagues this film's soundtrack, making it almost unbearable to listen to by the end. It's competently directed by Will Gluck (Easy A) who is the second odd directorial choice this Fall for a family flick, following Miguel Arteta's direction of Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. I'm also glad that we didn't have to suffer through the pain of seeing Will Smith's daughter Willow in the title role, as originally planned.
Other than that, there's not much to say other than the painfully obvious fact that I am not the target audience for this film. If you have kids, especially daughters, under the age of ten, they're going to eat this movie up. It's a delightful fantasy to them, and they'll walk around singing the songs for months. It does beg the question I originally posed to be brought up again, which is, do the children of this generation really need everything tailor made for them and their sensibilities? The problem with so many parents these days is that they want to fix the problems they had to deal with growing up, and it's making their children into entitled brats. Why shouldn't Annie be set in 2014 and not during the Depression? Why shouldn't Annie fly around in a helicopter and go see movies with Ashton Kutcher in them? That's what my kids do, so that's what the kids in these movies should do.
I understand why this film was made, and it makes sense from a business perspective, but from an artistic perspective, it's completely baffling. I admire the intentions behind this film's creation, but the execution leaves lots to be desired. The moment the first lyric was altered to fit the modern age, they should have stopped and just gone and done their own thing. This film is the cinematic equivalent of a facelift. The familiar elements are there, but something's off, and it's disturbing to look at. It's not a bad movie, but there was really no reason to call it Annie. You want to make this movie, that's fine, make it. Just call it something else. The saddest thing of all is that I don't even really like the original musical this is based on. I can only imagine how incensed I would feel if this were a beloved property from my childhood.
GO Rating: 2/5
[Photos via Box Office Mojo]