It’s been three decades since the last time we saw Annie on the big screen and with a winking poke at the traditionally (white) red-headed and cheerful moppet we’re used to it lets you know right off the bat that this isn’t the previous generation’s Annie; it’s a modernized, Twitter-ized and street smart update.
Quvenzhané Wallis, the Oscar-nominated star of 2012’s Beasts of the Southern Wild, has charisma to spare as Annie and director Will Gluck (Friends with Benefits) plays to that strength. She’s immensely likeable here and Wallis’s and the film’s take on the musical’s most familiar song, “Tomorrow” doesn’t have the theatrical, cheery optimism we’re used to hearing but is actually more cautiously hopeful and just a touch melancholy. Yet, it seems totally appropriate. Annie spends each night in front of the restaurant where her parents abandoned her as a baby, hoping they return. She’s not deluded about it nor is she cynical. It gives some depth to the song that feels more honest and layered.
A fun tweak on the Daddy Warbucks character of the original sees Oscar-winner Jamie Foxx as a billionaire phone mogul named Will Stacks and the film makes heavy use of that industry and social media. He’s not bald like Warbucks but there is a clever tip to that in the film. Stacks is running for mayor but isn’t personable and isn’t doing well in the polls. When a phone camera catches him rescuing Annie from an oncoming car it goes viral and little orphan Annie (or foster, as she exclaims) takes residence in Stacks’ billionaire bachelor pad on the advice of his PR folks played by Bobby Cannavale and Rose Byrne. Cannavale is fun but it’s Byrne that really shines; she has deft comic timing and a great singing voice.
If there’s a misstep with the film it’s definitely the casting of Cameron Diaz as Miss Hannigan. Adding a background of a washed-up singer who got kicked out of C&C Music Factory (that was a brief hit group in the 90s, kids) was a fun idea but Diaz’s performance feels like it’s in a different movie. Or not a movie at all. It feels like first night at improv and she fails miserably. In the 1982 film version Carol Burnett’s drunken Hannigan was actually intimidating and funny. In the 1999 TV version Kathy Bates was legitimately scary. Everything Diaz does here is a mistake. She never finds the right tone or level of scenery chewing. She’s a terrible fake drunk, acting like how a kid would pretend being drunk is like and her version of “Little Girls” is the film’s biggest song disappointment, too. It’s too bad because Diaz is a skilled comedienne but the days of My Best Friend’s Wedding and There’s Something About Mary feel like distant memories.
Usually when a new song is introduced to a beloved or well-known musical it’s time to start the eyerolls. But here, with the new song “Opportunity,” (recently nominated for a Golden Globe, as was Wallis) it bucks the trend. Written by pop star Sia and Greg Kurstin, it’s a sweet song but not saccharine. It’s as charming as Wallis is her performance of it, at a Guggenheim benefit concert, is sublime. There’s also a movie inside a movie in Annie starring Ashton Kutcher, Mila Kunis and, of all people, Rihanna, that’s funny and cute. Cameos like Michael J. Fox and Patricia Clarkson pop up throughout.
Does the film veer into schmaltz and sentimentality? Sure, but considering the original material it’s hard not too and Gluck is careful about when and how he decides to let that happen. It’s still ultimately a kid’s movie and even the bad guys end up softies, which was never really going to change and it doesn’t need to, either.
Annie opens December 19th everywhere.