You will probably be surprised when you read this: Annie is not the awful film it’s been painted as. In fact, it has much in its favor. Your surprise at reading that is nothing compared to my surprise at having typed it. But it’s true. This is not the disaster you may have heard. Now, let me say that I am not an Annie purist, and that may factor into this review. I don’t care that the new Annie is black any more than I cared that previous stage and screen Annies had, you know, eyes instead of white circles like the comic strip Annie. I’ve always found the score undistinguished, and though I know it has become a “classic” through the magic of nostalgia, I find the 1982 John Huston film unwatchable. So I approached the new take on Annie free of fears of blasphemy. Still, the trailer looked bad, and I went in with low expectations and grave misgivings, fully prepared to hate it. In fact, I kept waiting to hate it — but the worst that happened was a few momentary cringes. While those cringes were cringe-worthy indeed, I didn’t and don’t dislike this Annie, and simply as filmmaking (note italics), it’s much more interesting than Rob Marshall’s very straightforward Into the Woods.
Updating the story and goosing the songs into a more modern sound is not really a big deal. Anyone who rails against this not being in keeping with the “real” Annie needs to realize that their traditional (circa 1977) idea of the character is hardly in keeping with the source comic strip. (Celebrating FDR’s “New Deal” is about as far from the conservative comics as possible.) It’s standard practice when musicals are restaged or remade for the music to reflect modern tastes (or lack thereof). In no significant way is this Annie a radical departure — except that Annie and Daddy Warbucks (rechristened Will Stacks) are black. So what? The story is essentially the same. The songs are mostly the same. It’s still the adorable little orphan — or foster kid — whose cheery optimism melts nearly all hearts and comes out on top.
Am I recommending the film? Not entirely. It has issues. The choreography is often uninspired and occasionally embarrassing (we’re talking amateur-night embarrassing). The vocals have been auto-tuned within an inch of their lives — and several inches beyond the realm of believability. The performances are uneven. Quvenzhané Wallis has great charm, which carries her over some rough patches that may be as much the script’s fault as hers. The rest of the cast wavers to a degree that they sometimes feel more like they’re playing dress-up rather than acting. And some of the film’s ideas — like the helicopter musical number — are just plain bad.
But director Will Gluck — who made such stylish comedies as Easy A (2010) and Friends with Benefits (2011) — proves himself a savvy musical stylist on many occasions, even evoking the building rhythms technique of Rouben Mamoulian’s Love Me Tonight (1932), and, if nothing else, knows how to keep a film moving and visually inventive. Plus, his comedic timing is impeccable. As he’s done in the past, he’s peppered his film with great bits for actors from his other movies (Patricia Clarkson, Mila Kunis) and a cameo for his father, “Lance Kerfuffle.” Here, he’s also tossed in some nods to the comic strip — Jamie Foxx’s political opponent is named Harold Gray after Annie’s creator, and the band in a nightclub is called the Leapin’ Lizards. There’s even a gag reference to Daddy Warbucks’ bald head. This kind of good humor permeates the film even at its weakest and makes it unfailingly pleasant, if only sometimes great. Rated PG for some mild language and rude humor.