A good story is universal, malleable in a way that allows it to be retold in a number of different settings in ways that either reveal new things about that story’s themes or the new setting into which it has been placed. That is, of course, if the storyteller doing the transplanting has any interest in doing such a thing. If not, then the result may be just a hollow shell, an empty exercise in cosmetic makeovers. Unfortunately, the modern cinematic updating of the Broadway musical Annie falls with a leadened thud into the latter category.
Sony’s new version of Annie remains very similar to the original Broadway musical, and subsequent 1982 film adaptation, in the broadest strokes only. Moving the action eight decades forward from the Depression to modern day, Annie (Quvenzhané Wallis) is a foster kid, one of many, in the home of Miss Hannigan (Cameron Diaz), who only has brought the children into her home for the monthly checks they bring from Child Services. But Annie still believes that her missing parents will one day come back for her and spends her Friday evenings pining away outside the Italian restaurant, she is sure they will return. After Annie is saved by cell phone magnate and New York City mayoral candidate Will Stacks (Jamie Foxx) from almost being hit by a van, Stacks’ advisers suggest temporarily adopting Annie as a way to improve his standings in the polls. As Stacks spends time around the adorable moppet, he finds his cold, businessman’s heart slowly warming all the while Miss Hannigan sees Annie’s new situation as a big payday for herself.
Fans of the Broadway show and its tunes should especially brace themselves for disappointment. Things start off with a somewhat restrained “Hard Knock Life,” but they deteriorate from there, with most of the musical numbers providing very little energy or dynamism. Even Cameron Diaz, who has performed musically in other films all the way back to her 1994 feature film debut The Mask, can’t even enliven her solo number “Little Girls” though she certainly seems to be giving it her all. Most distressingly, the show’s keynote song, “Tomorrow,” just sits there on the screen, nowhere near being the showstopping number that it is supposed to be. Some songs, like “Smile” are relegated to almost background music in favor of new tunes written expressly for the film. Others get new arrangements, leaving “I Think I’m Gonna Like It Here” and others nothing more than frothy and immensely forgettable Disney Channel pop confections.
And for a musical, this Annie is amazingly tone deaf. One of the core themes of the original Depression-era comic strip and the post-Vietnam War-era musical was its bright-eyed, charming, if somewhat naive, optimism for the future. No matter how dark things looked, the sun would indeed come out tomorrow. If Annie’s chirping singing could unite a cold-hearted war profiteer like Daddy Warbucks (it’s right in the name, people) and the liberal President Franklin Roosevelt into believing tat there are better days ahead, then gosh darn it, we can believe it too! And with the country currently just emerged from a recession and very much split along political lines, director Will Gluck had an opportunity to play with that theme, but didn’t. Instead, we get a tepid storyline about Stacks running for mayor that serves more as a reason for Annie and Stacks to be thrust together than for any larger thematic use.
Gluck and co-writer Aline Brosh McKenna make several other missteps along the way. In his introductory scenes, Stacks is shown to be a germaphobe, but that aspect of his character quickly falls away and isn’t revisited or paid off later. The modernization puzzlingly removes references to such universally known s such as the Chrysler Building but adds in things like CitiBike, which I question will play to audiences outside of big cities where the bike share program is not a presence. The naming of Annie’s dog Sandy is tastelessly turned into a Hurricane Sandy joke. And there’s an attempt to redeem the character of Miss Hannigan towards the film’s finale that feels half-hearted and rings totally false.