Out with the old and in with the new, Will Gluck’s modernisation of Annie makes this obvious from the outset. A red haired, tap-dancing Annie A is replaced by Annie B (Quvenzhane Wallis), who leads the whole classroom in a rousing, interactive body percussion presentation on Roosevelt’s New Deal, a nod to the source material’s Depression setting and continued wealth inequality. Annie is still 10 years old, and lives with a band of fellow orphans in New York City, unwaveringly optimistic that she will one day find her parents. The orphanage has been swapped for a foster home, and Miss Hannigan (Cameron Diaz) is still a drunk, but also a washed-up singer who is Annie’s foster mother. Running home after a failed attempt at locating her parents, she is rescued from being hit by a truck by Will Stacks (Jamie Foxx), a self-made mobile phone millionaire who is running for mayor. Because this is 2014, a video of his heroic act goes viral, and soon Annie is part of Stacks’ bid for mayor, convincing him to become her temporary guardian.
Ok, lets be frank. We all had our eventual opinions on this from day one, we were all either disgusted that it wasn’t going to be another by-the-book interpretation, or happy that it wasn’t going to be more of the same thing (as long as there was no hip-hop music, thanks). Regardless, opinions regarding this were prejudiced from day one, they were NEVER going to win with this, there was no way this wasn’t going to get negatively reviewed. I’m more than willing to admit to have been decided on how I was going to feel about this, I’m in the second camp. These days, where so much of Hollywood is just history repeating, I’m just happy when someone gives something else a go. The last thing we needed was another by-the-book adaptation of this, set in the Depression with a red haired, tap dancing kid in a Peter Pan-collared red dress. There’s two other films that do that just fine.
That’s been the main problem when producing most modern movie musicals based from beloved shows. Writers feel so attached and indebted to the source material that they feel they have to do it note-for-note in order to be respectful, when in fact, that’s mostly what makes those films fail. Theatre and film are two wildly different mediums, and need to be treated as such when making that leap from one to the other. Just look at Chris Columbus’s 2005 adaptation of RENT – it’s about as note-for-note as you can get. That musical is so, so beloved, a major cultural work of the 90s. But no one wants to touch it because of this, which lead to the film being pretty much a production of the show on a screen. It made it drag, it didn’t feel energetic, you wished that Columbus and Stephen Chbosky could have felt like they could put their stamp on it.
In Annie, Gluck and co-writer Aline Brosh McKenna (The Devil Wears Prada) are not precious with the source material, they realise that just doing the same as before is going to be problematic, that it’s been seen before, and, in putting it in a modern context, certain changes need to be made. Are the results excellent? No, not at all. Gluck’s slightly out of his depth, he’s known for his edgy, smart, PG-13 humour (which is what made Easy A so great) that, obviously, doesn’t work here. As always, there are problems in adapting and truncating parts of the narrative in favour of others – the removal of Rooster and Lily makes the third act conflict redundant, an analogy for missing the obvious (hidden mobile phone towers in buildings and famous monuments) is needlessly complicated, and the reveal that Annie is illiterate is promptly forgotten until the final scene – but there is enough to admire in the attempt of putting a different spin on a musical overdone by dance schools and theatre groups everywhere.
In their writing Gluck and McKenna have realised and built on the heart of the story – Annie always has been, and always will be, a love letter to New York. it’s about the streets, the sounds (something that is made particularly good use of at the beginning of the film), making it into a magical place that the whole world wants to visit and dream that amazing things can happen in. While Gluck’s approach results in the musical numbers feeling less spontaneous and more like music video after music video (which he has stated was his intention), complete with plenty of over produced vocals, the performances of Wallis, Foxx, Byrne, and Diaz (who is appropriately desperate, which Miss Hannigan calls for) are joyful and confident. Wallis, who is only 11 years old, carries the film with the same magnetic confidence as Beasts of the Southern Wild. The casting of her in the title role is a stroke of genius.
At almost 2 hours, it overstays its welcome. But Annie, with its catchy Sia-penned riffs on classic songs and load of unexpected cameos, is, while weighed down with at times overbearing levels of production that threaten to undo its charm, it a joy to watch.