FRESH POUR: Annie (2014)

Dir. Will Gluck
Sony-Columbia Pictures

Updating and modernizing established, popular works is always an uphill battle, especially when those works are so closely associated with the era in which they were made. The original 1977 Annie musical-turned-film played heavily with the original’s New Deal-era rejection of rampant capitalism by having its Daddy Warbucks grow a heart and welcome FDR’s New Deal. Now, we’ve got 2014’s Annie, a materialistic, bloated and tone-deaf update that squanders the few things it has going for it, including a golden opportunity to provide greater, positive representation of minorities in media.

Clunkily updating the setting to modern-day Harlem, Annie plops the titular tot in a foster home with a white-trash Miss Hannigan, played with an obnoxious snarl by Cameron Diaz. Looking for her parents and getting swept up in the mayoral race of tech billionaire Will Stacks (Jamie Foxx), Annie looks for her parents while getting to know Mr. Stacks and his assistant Grace (Rose Byrne). Meanwhile, Miss Hannigan and Stacks’ overworked PR guy (Bobby Cannavale) scheme to take Annie away from Stacks for whatever reason. Academy Award nominee Quvenzhane Wallis (incrediblee in Beasts of the Southern Wild) shines in the title role, with an adolescent spunk and exuberant physicality that perfectly fits the rebellious Annie and occasionally helps to uplift the dire material she’s saddled with. I’ve been a fan of Wallis since Beasts, and never bought the complaints that she didn’t deserve her nomination because she was too young to actually be ‘acting.’ Hopefully her charming performance as Annie in her tweens helps to dispel this notion and gives her some more challenging work.

A lot has been made of the updated, Jay-Z/Sia produced soundtrack, and you know what? I kinda liked it. With a few exceptions – Little Girls is the wrong kind of shrill, though that’s mostly due to Diaz’s performance – the songs are poppy and appropriately modernized, having been turned into thoroughly serviceable modern pop songs. After all, it’s pretty likely that this song came as a result of Jay-Z’s Ghetto Anthem sampling of “Hard Knock Life” in 1998, and most of the songs have that same catchy R&B appeal. Wallis is clearly not a singer, but she handles her songs with a refreshing, youthful energy – she’s noticeably auto-tuned, but that strangely makes the songs feel more authentic. The incidental music fares far worse, though, since it seems like composer Greg Kurstin needs to remind you at all times that you really only came here for “Hard Knock Life” and “Tomorrow,” these two melodies played incessantly during any moment they’re not singing something else.

The real tragedy, though, is the dreadful choreography and cramped staging of the musical sequences themselves. “Tomorrow”’s cleanup sequence feels claustrophobic, even when they head out to the fire escape to dance with brooms, and the helicopter-adjacent tap dance of “I Don’t Need Anything But You” is half-hearted. It’s a shame to see such admirably updated tracks served with unstylish camerawork and unimpressive choreography, Easy A’s Will Gluck filming the whole affair with a disappointing detachment that makes the film feel so small.

While Nu-Annie (QuvenzhAnnie?) innovates in some ways through its diverse cast, its class and economic politics are shockingly, but not surprisingly, regressive. The change from war profiteer Daddy Warbucks to cell phone/tech mogul turned prospective mayor William Stacks (Bill…Stacks. Get it?) does the movie no favors, as does the increased infatuation with social media and consumerism. Stacks’ business runs dangerously close to advocating cell phone surveillance by private companies, without the Dark Knight condemnation of such an invasion of privacy (Stacks is even recurrently referred to as Batman). Annie’s rescue comes in the form of a Twitter hashtag. There are a few murmurs here and there about how Stacks’ race to the top and focus on consumerism has put him out of touch with the common people, but it’s really tough to see how he’ll change his ways by the end of the film, aside from a brief brush with solving illiteracy. Then again, the film’s message ends up being, “it doesn’t matter if you’re illiterate, as long as you’ve got Instagram.”

Despite all my reservations, I really hoped that Annie would have some redeeming value amongst its treacly messiness, and it….kinda does, I guess? Wallis is cute, the songs are fun, and the celebrity cameos in the background (including a Twilight ripoff/reference from Phil Lord & Chris Miller that is actually funnier for its datedness) bring the occasional, much-needed chuckle. These moments, though, serve to momentarily distract us from a film that feels like a desperate update of an already mediocre musical, no matter how progressive and admirable the casting. Giving incredible actors and actresses of color more prominent leading roles in crossover films is a great step in the right direction. Just make the movies better, and we’ll actually be getting somewhere.

Verdict: Skip It

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About Clint Worthington

Clint Worthington is a Chicago-based film/TV critic and podcaster. A member of the Chicago Film Critics Association, you can find his other film work at Consequence of Sound (where he is a Senior Staff Writer), Crooked Marquee, IndieWire and UPROXX. He is also the co-host of Nathan Rabin's Happy Cast.

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