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Film review: Annie*

By Preston Wilder

It’s amazing how bland Annie is – even bearing in mind it’s a ‘family film’, even bearing in mind that it was designed as a Christmas release in the US. It’s like a theme park where there aren’t any rides, or at least no exciting rides – just a carousel and a couple of go-karts – and your kids can drink Pepsi and eat candy all day. The kids will probably enjoy it, but you still have to wonder: is this what $65 million gets you these days?

There are good reasons for remaking Annie. Don’t forget she started out as ‘Little Orphan Annie’ in a comic strip from the Great Depression – and we’re now in a new Depression, so the ever-optimistic little girl may be due for a comeback. The comic strip became a famous stage musical – but the only previous film of that musical, made in the early 80s, is a certified fiasco (there’s a better Disney version from 1999, but it’s made for TV). Admittedly, there’s no obvious reason for updating Annie to the present day and changing her skin colour – but the idea must’ve struck a chord with the prominent African-Americans (including Will Smith and Jay-Z) who appear among the film’s producers, and it also allows Annie to be played, for the first (and probably last) time, by an Oscar nominee: 11-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis, from Beasts of the Southern Wild.

Wallis is sprightly – she’s a kid, after all – and game for anything, saying “Cool!” like she means it even when Annie’s saying it for the thousandth time (her other trademark phrase is “Bam!”, or sometimes “Bam! Bam!”, which I can imagine catching on with the small fry). “You think the world wants a smart-mouthed little girl?” admonishes Miss Hannigan (Cameron Diaz) – but apparently the world does. Everyone loves Annie, from the neighbourhood shopkeepers to the other little girls in the foster home – and of course the mobs of fans who make her an instant sensation on Twitter and Instagram after Will Stacks (Jamie Foxx) takes her in.

Stacks is the Daddy Warbucks figure, only weakened and turned into a bit of a buffoon: he does a lot of spit-takes, and there’s a wacky scene in a cinema where he’s watching a film and acting more childishly than the children around him. Everything’s been weakened, deliberately so – especially Miss Hannigan, no longer a harridan with a penchant for hurtful remarks and corporal punishment but a has-been rock chick stuck in a lonely existence, making smoothies, playing solo Twister and telling of the days when she narrowly missed out on becoming “one of Hootie’s Blowfish”. There’s absolutely no threat here, and no real cause for her young charges to be singing of a “hard-knock life”.

The songs have been weakened too, incidentally. The standards – ‘Maybe’, ‘Tomorrow’, ‘It’s a Hard-Knock Life’ – get a decent if perfunctory staging, but others have been totally revamped, the lyrics either hollowed out or replaced with ugly new lyrics. “Get me out, get me out of here / I’m ready for stardom after all these years,” sings Diaz in ‘Little Girls’, which doesn’t even rhyme let alone approach the wit of the old version. New songs have also been added, unmemorable verging on awful (“Look at me, and this big opportunity / You’re witnessing my moment, you see?” goes the painfully mediocre ‘Opportunity’) – but it’s no surprise that the new songs are bad, because the film seems conflicted about being a musical in the first place. More than once, director Will Gluck adds cute little meta-moments, as if to apologise for the genre: “People love musicals,” shrugs sarcastic Miss Hannigan. “Bursting into song for no apparent reason – it’s magical!”. Well, yes it is; but not here.

Gluck is the man behind Easy A and Friends With Benefits, self-consciously hip comedies with flash-mobs and web designers – and I’m guessing he saw his brief as being to update Annie to our age of diversity and egalitarianism, an age when kids are ‘empowered’ and authority figures have been all but defanged. There’s no tension in this film, no drama, nothing but a manchild and a chirpy little girl. Musicals need tension and drama, because musicals work on emotion – that’s why songs are powerful, breaking the tension in a way mere dialogue couldn’t accomplish – but that’s irrelevant because Annie isn’t really a musical, it’s a ‘family film’. It’s 118 minutes of kids being high-spirited and grown-ups being silly, indulgent or just plain infantile (Exhibit A: Oscar-winner Jamie Foxx doing an impression of “Casper the Friendly Ghost throwing up” for Annie’s benefit!). Kids may find it congenial, though there’s only so much candy you can eat before feeling sick. Accompanying adults, on the other hand, should prepare for a hard-knock two hours.

 

DIRECTED BY Will Gluck
STARRING Quvenzhané Wallis, Jamie Foxx, Cameron Diaz
US 2014 118 mins

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