Annie might not have been well loved by the real critics, but I’m not a real critic and I thought it was grand. A bright, cheerful production that doesn’t feel trapped by tradition, this latest version of the popular musical does what remakes are supposed to do. It gives its audience a new way of seeing and appreciating a familiar story and does so by distinguishing itself from the films that have come before. This Annie feels very much of its time and place with its diverse cast of characters navigating the streets of a lively, contemporary New York to an up-tempo soundtrack. It may look sleek and flashy, but at its heart, it’s still an old school story about love and family.
Quvenzhané Wallis is the undisputed star of the film and my favorite Annie so far. She’s as plucky as they come, and her Annie shows confidence beyond her years. She infects everyone with her optimism, with the exception of foster mother hen, Miss Hannigan (Cameron Diaz), and the clerk at child services (Stephanie Kurtzuba). Yet there’s also a streak of melancholy in her, and she doesn’t try to hide that she’s a young, lonely soul. She’s the natural leader in Miss Hannigan’s home, where a half dozen foster girls stay while they wait for a permanent placement. I’ll forgive the fact that a boozy 90s band groupie is responsible for vulnerable children and that Diaz’s singing is slightly better than it was in My Best Friend’s Wedding. Miss Hannigan does have a moral compass; she just doesn’t quite remember where she placed it.
Daddy Warbucks, however, gets a remake, or an upgrade, depending on how you want to look at it. He’s still wealthy as hell but he’s daddy in a whole different way. The character, Will Stacks (Jamie Foxx), wants to parlay his business success as a telecom titan into a political one. He’s running for mayor, and when he happens to save Annie from getting flattened by a car, his public relations team decides he should foster her to improve his image. Will, selfish, self-assured, and pretty damn ambitious, has no idea what to do with a kid. He’s manipulated by Guy (Bobby Cannavale), a political adviser who only cares about public perception, into using Annie to boost Will’s election chances. Thankfully, there’s Grace Farrell (Rose Byrne). She’s the Will whisperer, the calming influence in Will’s life who helps him refocus his attention on other important things, including matters of the heart. Foxx and Byrne are magnetic and charming, and I’m so invested in their characters’ relationship that I don’t care that they don’t have much chemistry together. It works for me, and I’m loving it.
What also works are the revamped musical numbers that give this movie its joyful beat. Most of the popular tracks are there and all are recognizable, but what’s changed is that the songs feel a part of their surroundings, as if they’ve absorbed the city’s sounds. “It’s the Hard Knock Life” moves with these girls on the go and is familiar to anyone still channeling Jay-Z. Wallis takes control of “Tomorrow,” the musical’s most famous number and thus the easiest one to bungle. She shows her character’s contradictions with a version that is gentle but defiant. The showstopper, however, is a new song, “Opportunity,” also sung by Wallis during a black tie affair. Annie, alone in the spotlight and wearing a signature red dress, belts out her song with a singular clarity. Jaws drop all around, and it’s not clear whether the audience is in awe of Annie or Wallis. Probably both.
“It’s the Hard Knock Life” by Quvenzhané Wallis and Miss Hannigan’s girls:
“Tomorrow” by Quvenzhané Wallis:
“I Think I’m Going to Like It Here” Quvenzhané Wallis and Rose Byrne:
“Little Girls” by Cameron Diaz:
“The City’s Yours” Jamie Foxx and Quvenzhané Wallis:
“Opportunity” by Quvenzhané Wallis:
“Easy Street” by Bobby Cannavale and Cameron Diaz:
“Who Am I?” by Cameron Diaz, Jamie Foxx, and Quvenzhané Wallis:
“I Don’t Need Anything But You” by Jamie Foxx, Quvenzhané Wallis, and Rose Byrne:
Prod: James Lassiter, Will Gluck, Jada Pinkett Smith, Will Smith, Caleeb Pinkett, Shawn “Jay Z” Carter, Jay Brown, Tyran Smith
Dir: Will Gluck
Writer: Will Gluck, Aline Brosh McKenna
Cast: Quvenzhané Wallis, Jamie Foxx, Rose Byrne, Cameron Diaz, Bobby Cannavale, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, David Zayas, Stephanie Kurtzuba
Time: 118 min
Country: United States