Sunday, December 21, 2014

Movie Musicals That Got It Wrong: Annie (2014)

After reading the reviews, I was prepared for the movie to be painfully awful to sit through.  Instead, I found it to be not-so-bad.  At times, it captured the spirit of Annie and even exceeded some aspects of the 1982 musical.  But in the end, its strengths couldn't overcome its weaknesses, putting the updated Annie on the Wrong list.

I've already given an overview of Annie's history and the basic plot line.  It doesn't really change in this version, except that now Annie is one of several foster kids being "raised" by Colleen Hannigan, a drunk and bitter never-was backup singer.  Daddy Warbucks is now Will Stacks, a self-made cell phone millionaire who is running for mayor of New York City.  After Stacks rescues Annie from being hit by a truck, his campaign manager realizes that it boosted his popularity, and before long she is living in his penthouse apartment.

Will Smith got the idea of making an updated version of Annie as a vehicle for his daughter, Willow. After Willow aged out of the part, Quvenzhane Wallis, nominated for an Oscar for her role in Beasts of the Southern Wild, was cast in the title role.  Smith and Jay-Z remained on as producers, and eventually Will Gluck became the director.  Jamie Foxx was cast as Will Stacks, Rose Byrne as Grace Farrell, and Cameron Diaz as Colleen Hannigan.

The Good

The Concept.  I'll never understand why Shakespeare or Jane Austen can be endlessly remade, rewritten, and updated to keep them "relevant" to modern audiences, but Annie is somehow sacrosanct.  To read some comments (including some really disturbing comments on YouTube videos) it's practically a crime against nature for a young black girl to play an iconic character who has always been a white redhead.  And even worse, to update the story so it takes place in... blurg, arg... modern day!  At least Annie's basic premise transfers cleanly to 2014, compared to, say, Hamlet.  There are still poor orphans in New York, but not so many Danish princes with daddy issues.  Annie is a musical that could really resonate with some updating, moving beyond the kitschy feel-good quality of the original.  Emphasis on "could."

Annie Actually Cares.  Unlike the 1982 Annie, who doesn't even talk to her orphan "sisters" again until they've saved her life, this Annie remembers her foster sisters.  She gives them all of the candy in Will Stacks's limo SUV, takes them to a new movie premiere, and gives them free cell phones.  She is genuinely big sisterly in the few scenes the foster girls have alone.  Annie's improved attitude comes not just from the script, but from Wallis's performance.  Wallis projects a sweet charm that is utterly the opposite of Aileen Quinn's constant mugging.  Whereas Quinn's Annie has her "Look at me, aren't I spunky and winsome LOVE ME" schtick, Wallis never tries to sell you on her winsome qualities.  They simply exist, and she just lets them exist.  She even tries to put you off a little by adopting a mildly cynical attitude toward everything.  Sorry hon, we ain't biting.  That said, Wallis's overall emotional range isn't any broader than Quinn's -- when she learns that Will Stacks found her parents, her reaction is the same as if someone said they'd bought her a pet turtle.  She does manage to look genuinely devastated, though, when told that her parents' reunion was a cynical ploy to help Stacks get elected mayor of New York.

Money Doesn't Always Make the World Go 'Round.  One of the biggest criticisms of this version of Annie is how materialistic it is, and how the movie claims to be about exposing the class divide, but turns into a love letter to the one percent.  Have none of these critics seen the 1982 version?  This flaw, if anything, is intrinsic to the musical itself, not just the latest version.  It reveals the clash between the anti-New Deal source material and the musical's pro-New Deal sentiment.  Every version of Annie, including the 1982 version, contains sequences where we are just supposed to marvel at Daddy Warbucks's wealth and power.  If anything, the 1982 version is even more shameless about it.  When Annie and Will Stacks go to the movies, it's at a packed cinema filled with regular people.  When Annie and Daddy Warbucks go to the movies, Daddy Warbucks buys out an entire performance at a luxury cinema so he won't have to mix with the hoi polloi.  Will Stacks is forced to confront his elitism several times, but does anyone really pressure Daddy Warbucks to identify with the common people, apart from his vague acceptance of the New Deal?

What I really appreciate about the new Annie is, like the 1999 version and unlike the 1982 version, Annie and the "Daddy Warbucks" figure bond over activities that don't require wealth.  For the 1999 Annie, it's throwing snowballs, eating ice cream sundaes, and looking at shop displays.  For the 2014 Annie, it's cooking awful meals and playing soccer with a beat-up ball.  Yes there is the grand helicopter ride over the city, but it would be a mistake to conclude that that alone won Annie over to Will Stacks.           

Better Character Arcs.  While this movie isn't exactly deep, it does have better character arcs for Annie and the "Daddy Warbucks" figure than the 1982 version.  Whereas Albert Finney's Daddy Warbucks learned to love an orphan and to tolerate a New Deal that would have been implemented even without his support, Will Stacks has to learn how to get over his genuine terror of people and become more of a humanitarian.  He doesn't just become smitten by Annie after putting her to bed one night, either.  He makes her sleep on the couch and otherwise does not want to interact with her until she slowly wins him over.  Meanwhile, this Annie's problems are not just that she's missing her parents, but that she can't read, a fact that the movie manages to conceal until more than midway through.  (Kind of makes you wonder how the 1982 Annie could read, as her education must have been worse.)  

The Bad

Butchering the Songs.  The most disappointing aspect of the remake was the songs.  I realize that many of the songs wouldn't transfer well to a 2014 setting.  A 30s radio show ditty isn't going to sound less dated with a hip-hop beat.  Songs like "A New Deal for Christmas" would be nonsensical and better left on the cutting room floor.  But most of the time, it seemed like the movie producers weren't interested in preserving even songs that could have worked with very minor changes.  "Little Girls" could have worked in its near entirety, as could "Easy Street."  "I Think I'm Gonna Like It Here" didn't have to be quite as gutted as it was.  There was one point where the lines "Used to room in a tomb, where I'd sit and freeze.  Get me now.  Holy cow!  Could someone pinch me please?" would have been appropriate, but instead I had to listen to nonsense like "add it to your wish list" (and in the context of this movie, I'm sure they meant Amazon Wish List).  Instead, most of the Annie songs contain a familiar refrain and completely new, often very generic, lyrics.  At least they didn't mess much with my favorite, "It's a Hard-Knock Life," but that is cold comfort.

And oh God, the autotune.  I had not experienced such poor audio quality since Evita.  Many movies have become adept at making it seem like the singing is live, even when it is pre-recorded, but here, the pre-recording is so, so obvious.  And the lip syncing is bad, really bad.  I'll give the kids a pass, but even so, for a musical movie, it makes the musical aspects the worst part of the experience.      

Maybe Money (and Twitter) Do Make the World Go 'Round.  I get it.  In 2014, we are all married to our Twitter and Facebook accounts, taking endless selfies with our cell phones and posting them online.  Thanks, movie, for sharing this knowledge.  While the movie's references to our reliance on today's technology are not without support, it exaggerates it ten-fold, making it seem like no child playing in the park can survive without taking a cell phone picture of a girl waving at her from a car.  It's grating, and will date the movie in just a few years' time.

And while this movie' materialism is no worse than in the 1982 version, it's still pretty bad.  Entire songs are devoted to marveling at Daddy Stacks's stuff, or at the city via Stacks's private helicopter.

Miss Hannigan.  Carol Burnett's Miss Hannigan was not what one would call subtle.  And yet next to Cameron Diaz's Colleen Hannigan, subtle is the only way to describe her performance.  I get that Diaz relishes the chance to play characters who are polar opposites of her sweet girl next door roles from years past, but sheesh.  Every line she speaks is exaggerated meanness, to the point where it seems like she's trying to chew off the girls' faces.  We get it: she's bitter and she hates her life.  Message would have been loud and clear even if Diaz had dialed back her performance by half.

I will give the movie credit for attempting to humanize her a lot sooner than the 1982 version did.  This Miss Hannigan actually has an admirer, and her eleventh-hour change of heart isn't quite as eleventh hour as in 1982.  But overall, she's a character who seems more like she's mimicking another character than like a real person in her own right.      

Not That Special.  Though this movie tries to be different, there's nothing really that exciting or special about this version of Annie.  It never becomes the true examination of class differences that it hints at being in the beginning.  Even if it got rid of all the clunky, cumbersome music numbers, it would just be a pleasant movie, nothing worth rushing out to go see.  At almost two hours, it is also about 20 minutes too long.  Part of its weaknesses lie with the source material, and part of it lies with the half-hearted attempts to update it.  It probably would have been better if the movie's producers had just cut all direct ties and said the movie was inspired by Annie, but then it would have had much less commercial appeal.


First, to answer a question: why haven't I reviewed the 1999 version of Annie, arguably the best?  Mainly because it's a television production and I wasn't planning to do a whole Annie series.  I will say that it is a really good production, that Alicia Morton is appropriately sweet and charming, Victor Garber is a very approachable Daddy Warbucks with a great singing voice, Audra McDonald is excellent as Grace, the original musical numbers (ex: "NYC" and "Something Was Missing") work well, and the winter setting is much better than summer.  In some cases, the production suffers from being less lavish than the 1982 version (that version of "It's a Hard-Knock Life" will never be beaten), but overall, it really works.

Unfortunately, the 2014 Annie does not fare as well.  It is arguably no worse than the 1982 version, but that isn't much of a victory.  It's pleasant enough entertainment for those lacking family friendly options, but not much more.

Movie Musicals That Got It Right: DreamgirlsLes MiserablesChicagoMamma

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1 comment:

  1. An okay movie, if that's all your expecting. Anything more, you'll be slightly disappointed. Good review.