By Mary Houlihan/For Sun-Times Media
The musical “Annie” has been entertaining young audiences for decades, popping up on stages from Broadway to Chicago and beyond. Now fans young and old are offered a big-screen, reworked version that moves the story out of the Depression era and into modern-day New York yet does little to enhance the well-known story of the young orphan.
Anyone wishing for a shiny new song-and-dance version of the story will be disappointed with this hot mess. Director Will Gluck, who also wrote the screenplay with Aline Brosh McKenna, doesn’t have much of a feel for the material. A few of the key songs (“Tomorrow,” “It’s a Hard-Knock Life,” “Maybe”) from the musical will grab the attention of young fans, but the additional new songs are bland and unmemorable. The choreography, what little there is, lacks commitment and comes across as sloppy (although the “Hark-Knock” number performed by the kids is good).
The traditional story (based on Harold Gray’s comic strip) follows the adventures of the red-haired Little Orphan Annie, her dog Sandy and Oliver “Daddy” Warbucks, the tycoon who shows her another side of life while also learning a life lesson from his young friend. Musical theater versions often seem dated, so moving the story into the 21st century does make sense (as does the multicultural casting), but in the process Gluck and his all-star cast create a chaotic film that tries too hard and fails to capture the charm and heart of the musical.
The story begins in a classroom where a traditional redheaded Annie is finishing up a class presentation. She is followed to the front of the classroom by a second Annie (fresh-faced, spunky Quvenzhane Wallis), whose report to the chagrin of her teacher includes the raucous participation of her classmates.
Annie and a handful of other children live in a Harlem foster home run by Colleen Hannigan (Cameron Diaz), a tawdry, bitter ex-singer (she was kicked out of C+C Music Factory) who wants nothing to do with them except for the monthly financial benefit they bring in. Ten years ago, Annie’s parents left her with a note of explanation (they promised to come back for her) at an Italian restaurant, and it’s here that Annie is endlessly on the lookout for them with the help of a kindly waiter. A neighborhood bodega owner (David Zayas) offers her encouragement and helps facilitate her schemes.
The Warbucks character is transformed into Will Stacks (Jamie Foxx), a germophobic billionaire who is running for mayor but behind in the polls. His oily campaign manager (Bobby Cannavale) sees an opportunity to increase public support when Stacks saves Annie from being crushed by an oncoming truck and a video of the good deed goes viral.
Stacks’ lonely assistant Grace (Rose Byrne) is sent to find Annie and bring her to stay at Stacks’ tech-heavy penthouse with killer views of the skyline. As the story unfolds, Annie warms Stacks’ reluctant heart and shows him there’s more to life than his massive business empire.
Since this is all based on a popular musical, you’d think the singing would be top-notch. Instead, it’s a letdown. Even songs by Foxx, the only experienced singer, lack any real heart. Wallace, Byrne, Cannavale and Diaz do not have the vocal chops needed to carry the songs even with, one assumes, the help of Auto-Tune.
As for the acting, Wallis is a one-note Annie, Foxx keeps to the understated, Byrne is bland and Cannavale’s villain lacks conviction. And Diaz’s nasty, venomous interpretation of Hannigan is over-the-top in a really bad way. She screams; she falls down; she throws things. Her leering version of the song “Little Girls” is the film’s low moment.
Gluck has proven he’s a good director with the right material (see “Easy A” and “Friends With Benefits”). But “Annie” is sloppy, frenetically edited and filled with much that is unnecessary (including its nearly two-hour running time).
As Annie is rescued from the couple posing as her real parents, there’s even a manic chase scene with cop cars and helicopters that is so out of place it’s laughable. And the following scene when Annie and Stacks reunite reads like a half-hearted, last-minute add-on. It’s as if everyone had simply given up and wanted it to be over so they could go home. Even Sandy the dog looks like he’s had enough.
Columbia Pictures presents a film directed by Will Gluck and written by Gluck and Aline Brosh McKenna, based on the musical by Thomas Meehan, Charles Strouse and Martin Charnin. Running time: 118 minutes. Rated PG (for some mild language and rude humor). Opens Friday at local theaters.