It’s impossible to talk about “Annie” without admitting up front when you first experienced John Huston’s 1982 film.
For adults at the time, it was a spectacular disaster, thanks in large part to the bizarre direction of Huston. For kids, one of whom was me, it might as well be up there with “The Sound of Music” as a musical classic. This is why kids don’t write movie reviews but it also helps to remind that sometimes it won’t even occur to them that the movie they’re watching is bad.
In that way, perhaps this new version of “Annie” is the update we all deserve: a flawed movie that kids will inexplicably take to. But, with such a wealth of innovative and heartfelt family fare in both the animated and live-action realms, why bother?
The best that can be said of this new version is that Will Gluck and company have certainly made the story, and most of the songs, their own. But, aside from originality points, this new “Annie” is a charmless and grossly materialistic bore, especially for now-adults of a certain age who still hold the ’82 version in high regard.
“Annie” has always been a strange beast, with its grand New Deal politics juxtaposed with the tale of a rich savoir taking in a plucky orphan. Here, Annie (Quvenzhané Wallis) is a foster kid living with a handful of pre-teen girls under the lazy supervision of Hannigan (Cameron Diaz) in her Harlem apartment.
Diaz, channeling an early Christina Aguilera with her cheap hoop earrings and messily crimped hair, talk-yells at the girls with such an unnatural shrill that it fails at being cruel, comedic, or drunken. This is no Carol Burnett slapstick.
But nothing actually seems that bad for Annie. She and her foster friends are all clothed and fed and attending clean, friendly schools. They even seem to mostly like Hannigan except when she makes them clean. A hard knock life, indeed.
This is not the dire, hopeless situation of a blighted Depression-era orphanage. Still, Annie wants out and is determined to find the parents she believes exist. Fine, fair.
On one of her many solo jaunts, she runs into billionaire Will Stacks (Jamie Foxx), an affectless, Bloombergian cellphone titan in the midst of a mayoral campaign. In Annie, his team (Rose Byrne and Bobby Cannavale) sees an opportunity to make the disconnected mogul more relatable to the common voter. All they need is a few press-friendly moments with the cute foster kid from the wrong side of the tracks.
We all know the story by now. What starts as a tactic turns real as Stacks realizes he can care for another being. It’s how they get there that’s the problem.
Gluck, who made the delightful, self-aware teen comedy “Easy A,” proves inept at staging and filming the movie’s musical numbers. There is hardly any choreography to speak of — in one number Byrne just sways back and forth as the camera flies overhead grandiosely as though this was a Busby Berkeley setup — and the singing, across the board, is on-key mediocrity, even though the auto tuning does its best to obscure everyone’s natural sound.
Wallis, who displayed preternatural talent and strength at the tender age of five in “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” has been directed to play 11-year-old Annie as a self-assured brat. She is unfazed by authority figures and is the type of kid who will just take the stage at a swanky charity event and burst into song. In this version, Annie also becomes a social media celebrity.
She and Foxx share a few sweet moments, but their connection mostly comes across as superficial — as does nearly everything in this movie.
This “Annie” was supposed to be for a new generation. In the harsh light of 2014, it’s never looked so dated.
“Annie,” a Sony release, is rated PG by the Motion Picture Association of America “for some mild language and rude humor.” Running time: 118 minutes. One and a half stars out of four.
MPAA definition of PG: Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
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