I think we can acknowledge that any musical starring Victor Garber, Kathy Bates, Audra McDonald, Alan Cumming, and Kristin Chenoweth will be worth watching, even if it is a sanitized version of the beloved Annie. As this 1999 TV adaptation shows, the sum of its talents can overcome the Disneyfication of what could be a darker production. The studio’s sugarcoated fingerprints are all over this one in order to make it as family friendly as possible, giving the movie a cheery glow but also leaving it a little hollow.
One change I did like was Garber’s interpretation of Depression era gazillionaire Oliver Warbucks, who is more sad than he is gruff. He doesn’t try to bark his way through the first act, and it’s easy to see why people would be drawn to him despite his standoffishness. When he embraces Annie (Alicia Morton), the orphan who he invites to his mansion as something of a Christmas publicity stunt, you know that she is what he’s been looking for all along. Unfortunately, Warbucks’s repressed romance with his secretary Grace (McDonald) remains that way for far too long and is awkwardly shoved in just before the movie ends. That makes McDonald’s performance, which is technically brilliant as always, fall a little flat. She is certainly the calming mother figure to Annie and the levelheaded assistant who keeps the household grounded, but she has little of the vibrancy that makes her character stand out.
Miss Hannigan, the owner of the small orphanage that Annie stays at, has the opposite problem of Warbucks and comes off as pretty tolerable, though not nice, despite Bates’s best efforts. You can almost hear the director telling her, “Mean, but not too mean,” in every scene. Hannigan ends up stomping around and looking really pissed off about her lot in life, but she’s not the abusive chain-smoking drunk she is in other versions. I don’t know that she warrants the intensity of hate she gets from her charges.
Morton’s casting really seems to dictate the tone. She’s a much sweeter, more cherubic Annie, and when she threatens to knock some sense into one of the girls who’s caught bullying another, it’s not quite clear who will end up on top. In other productions, I’d cheer for Annie because she’s the scrappy and precocious underdog. In this movie, I’m rooting for her because I just want someone to protect her.
What softens the story’s edges are also what end up making this film fun to watch though. Cumming and Chenoweth give their characters, scheming thieves in cahoots with Miss Hannigan, a cartoonish sheen that makes their song and dance pop. I admit I couldn’t stop thinking of Cumming as the Emcee in Cabaret, a decidedly different role in so many respects, but the actor has perfected all variations of slimeball. He along with a scene-chewing Chenoweth have way too much fun being bad, giving the audience license to join in.
It’s this use of Broadway talent that lifts the picture from the confines of TV. Because of the format, the choreography looks a little boxed in at times. Most of the scenes take place in large rooms, which keeps the action from weaving through sets and in and outdoors. Visually, for example, “I Think I’m Gonna Like It Here” doesn’t quite achieve the grand scale the song suggests and has to make the most out of Warbucks’s foyer space. But McDonald’s singing, and Morton’s, gives the number extra height. Even without star wattage, however, the wonderfully diverse orphans carry off “You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile” with a joyous kick.
“It’s a Hard Knock Life” by Alicia Morton and the Orphans:
“Tomorrow” by Alicia Morton:
“I Think I’m Gonna Like It Here” by Audra McDonald and Alicia Morton:
“NYC” by Victor Garber, Audra McDonald, Alicia Morton, and original Annie, Andrea McArdle:
“Easy Street” by Alan Cumming, Kathy Bates, and Kristin Chenoweth:
“You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile” by the Orphans:
Prod: Craig Zadan, Neil Meron
Dir: Rob Marshall
Writer: Irene Mecchi
Cast: Alicia Morton, Victor Garber, Kathy Bates, Audra McDonald, Alan Cumming, Kristin Chenoweth, Andrea McArdle, Sarah Hyland
Time: 90 min
Country: United States