Annie—There are plenty of missteps and false notes in this new version of the Broadway musical favorite, reset in modern-day New York. To begin with, the orphanage setting no longer works. The show’s comic villainess Miss Hannigan, here played by Cameron Diaz, is now a bitter, drunken foster mom, which somehow doesn’t have the same menace.
Many of the Martin Charnin lyrics had to be tweaked, while all of the ‘30s-specific numbers had to be dropped entirely, and to make up for this new numbers were added, all forgettable. The movie is badly overlong, needlessly padded with stuff like un-suspenseful chase scenes that add nothing.
On the upside, this Annie, directed by Will Gluck from a script he wrote with Aline Brosh McKenna, starts off well, with a lively opening and several of the show’s best numbers, including the peerless “Hard Knock Life.” Annie’s fellow orphans are spirited, and there are grown-ups who look like they’re going to be bit players but give full-fledged, funny supporting turns, notably Stephanie Kurtzuba as a dazzled social services inspector. The new Sandy, a rescue dog in real life, makes a fine debut as well.
Above all, Quvenzhané Wallis is adorable in the title role. She doesn’t have the brassy Broadway-baby belt usually associated with the part, but she has a sweet voice and she’s as indomitable and assured as she was in the role of Hushpuppy in Beasts of the Southern Wild. She also has a fine, candid onscreen rapport with Jamie Foxx as Oliver Stacks, this film’s standoffish, germaphobic version of Daddy Warbucks, and this carries the picture past its cheesier aspects.
There are a couple of cute in-jokes, too. A band playing in a club, for instance, is called the Leapin’ Lizards. Best of all, Stacks’ opponent in the New York mayoral race is a progressive incumbent named Harold Gray, after the creator of the original Little Orphan Annie newspaper strip. There’s a special piquancy to this gag if you know the truth about Gray: that he was a Union-hating, New Deal-loathing reactionary, and that he—of all freakin’ people—was a staunch opponent of Child Labor Laws! Apparently he believed there were benefits to a hard knock life.