Annie means a lot to me. It’s one of those musicals that I watched all the time when I was a kid, so it’s clearly close to my heart. Does that mean I’m instantly going to adore any production of it that comes about? Nah, but I’m probably a bit more susceptible to digging one even if it’s heavily flawed (though it’s never been that great a musical). And that’s exactly the case with Will Gluck’s Annie. It’s a mess, made by someone who should have never put his hands on a musical, but its good intentions and attempts to modernize the narrative for the young girls of today make it easy to overlook some of its problems (but definitely not all of them).
It’s a film whose primary narrative is simply that of a young woman who lives in a foster home and dreams of the day she’ll find her parents. As everyone knows by this point though, this new edition of the musical features an overwhelming amount of updates to the narrative. It’s not just about bringing a young black girl to the forefront instead of a redhead (something many have stupidly taken offense to), or even simply bringing Sia’s touch to the music, but about handing the whole thing as a wildly-modernized pop-atmosphere film. “I Think I’m Gonna Like It Here” in particular is one of the best scenes to describe the way the whole thing has been updated past recognition, with a smart-house of sorts being the focus of the scene. But, just because it’s the best descriptor of the films longing to be modern doesn’t mean it’s actually a good scene. It’s jarring, nearly impossible to get used to for most, and the song that abuses the auto-tune feature the most.
Even though its musical numbers are hit-and-miss, Annie thankfully isn’t nearly as embarrassed to be a musical as something like Clint Eastwood’s Jersey Boys was earlier this year. And yet, it still suffers from some wild tonal shifts and from being a little too long for its own good. In and out of its musical numbers, the film is ridiculous beyond reason – and a little stupid – but a surprising amount of the jokes actually manage to land. Things like Hannigan telling a young woman to pray while an inspector is over and getting the response, “I tried. It hasn’t worked yet,” are right on the money.
But it’s all about Quvenzhané Wallis, who could charm practically any viewer to death as our little orphan Annie. Sure, some folks might rightly complain about the auto-tune that’s tacked onto her voice during the lively Sia-updated songs (not all of which are that good, admittedly), but it’s all about her on-screen charisma. She’s the perfect embodiment of the optimistic young woman that a character like Annie should be, and a particularly inspired performance of the hit song “Tomorrow” shows that beautifully.
We see Annie strolling down the street, bumping into all sorts of families simply going about their day – sometimes interacting with them – but we witness each one through a reflection on a window. A reflection often presents the world we want to view for ourselves, and what Gluck and DP Michael Grady show us here with these lovely shots (shoved into a movie with otherwise middling cinematography) is a young woman who solely wants a family. Off-window though, they’re just mundane folks going about their business, be they mail-people or construction workers.
Even though it’s something we already know, because the story has told us, it’s such a nice visual touch to complement an already emotionally compelling song. And it even ends with her seeing another young black girl with a family of her own, first through a window and then right in front of her; a symbol of the potential of this dream becoming reality, maybe tomorrow. In addition to that, there’s something about watching this young girl with a beautifully full head of hair that some would call unruly – and even she calls “gigantic” when she sees it on screen – in an era where young black girls are told their hair is somehow unnatural, just totally embracing herself with a smile on her face.
Outside of her, practically the entire cast is turned up to 11 and as unnatural as it is for some, there’s something kind of amusing about it. Foxx’s germaphobe, Cannavale’s desperate campaign manager, Byrne’s bubbly neurotic, and Kurtzuba’s lusty social worker, they’re all total caricatures, but none hits the level Cameron Diaz and her character do. Folks will shout for Diaz to score a Razzie for the role, but her ability to dish out something this ridiculous (with just the right amount of self-awareness) is kind of amazing to witness. She’s a different type of Hannigan than what folks are used to, but her conceited drama-queen nature is just delightful; flawless photos of herself all around the house, dozens of costume changes, and mentions of C+C Music Factory. The update to “Little Girls” to make her focused on a long-lost career rather than solely desperate for a man is an especially nice touch.
The cameos are abundant, as Will Gluck is often wont to include in his films; Patricia Clarkson as a focus group woman, Michael J. Fox as himself, and, most importantly, Rihanna and Mila Kunis in a fake sci-fi romance made by Phil Lord and Chris Miller. Yes, you read that right. It’s beautiful and I hope it happens immediately. It’s one of those things that bothers me personally about Gluck, as things could be parred down to make this a tighter and more effective movie. The longing to slide into something more comical and mainstream when you’re working with an ultimately dramatic and touching movie (or at least one with the potential to be that) is something that Gluck should have avoided.
Do I think most people will like this movie? Probably not, but there’s a surprising amount to like and appreciate in it, even if it’s nowhere near being a great film. And, as I’ve been told many times before, sometimes we praise the intentions and modes instead of the results. Annie may be messy and distracted, but its good intentions won me over by the end of the day. Doesn’t make it a great movie, or even a good one, but one I might revisit a couple of times before it becomes painfully dated in a few years.
Directed by Will Gluck; written by Will Gluck & Aline Brosh McKenna; adapted from Thomas Meehan’s stage play and Harold Gray’s “Little Orphan Annie”; starring Quvenzhané Wallis, Jamie Foxx, Rose Byrne, Cameron Diaz, Bobby Cannavale, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, David Zaya, Tracie Thoms, and Stephanie Kurtzuba; 118 minutes.
Annie is now in theaters everywhere.