The beloved tale of little orphan Annie has been told on numerous occasions since the character first appeared in a ‘20s comic strip. The picaresque girl stole the hearts of readers who identified with her struggles in the post-Depression era, as people all over the world lost their homes and jobs. Her popularity was such that it took until 2010 for the comic to be cancelled, almost a century after she first appeared. To modern audiences, Annie is best known for the Broadway musical which spawned hit songs like “It’s the Hard Knock Life” (which would even be sampled by Jay-Z decades later) and “Tomorrow”, which has become the staple song little girls perform when auditioning for school plays.
The musical version of Annie (with music by Charles Strouse and lyrics by Martin Charnin) opened in 1977 and played through 1983 becoming one of the most popular musicals of all time. It was turned into a film by the legendary John Huston in 1982 which featured Albert Finney and Carol Burnett, and it was eventually remade for television in 1999 with Victor Garber and Kathy Bates. The latest Broadway incarnation closed in 2014. Needless to say, Annie’s legacy is perhaps impossible to measure
Yet, despite its iconic stature, it has never felt sacred. In Broadway terms, it’s not as sophisticated as Stephen Sondheim and it lacks the populist factor that’s made Andrew Lloyd Webber so powerful. Its film versions are respected if not entirely deemed classics; therefore, it’s a piece that’s always felt ripe for being remade and reexamined.
The latest version of Annie was released in 2014 and directed by Will Gluck, the director behind Easy A, which gave the world the gift of Emma Stone, and Friends With Benefits which proved that Justin Timberlake had precious comedic timing. Gluck seems to have the Midas touch when it comes to delivering romantic comedies that are both romantic and funny, but his Annie feels so corporate, that one can’t help but wonder how much of the final product was Gluck and how much of it had something to do with megastar producers Will Smith and Jay-Z. (The former, at one point, had devised the remake as a star vehicle for his youngest daughter Willow; the latter seems to hold the musical in personal esteem.) Those producers treat this more as a long-form ad for technology, music, and toys, rather than a good old-fashioned story.
This Annie has been turned contemporary, taking place in a version of New York City straight out of Hollywood. Its geography isn’t only strange; it also lacks the grittiness and urgency that makes the city the perfect setting for the tale of a little girl trying to find her place in the world. Instead of forcing the audiences to look at the girl, we are asked to look up at the vulgar skyscrapers where billionaire mogul Will Stacks (Jamie Foxx) is king. Constantly escorted by his loyal assistant Grace Farrell (a divine Rose Byrne) and a “bulldog” of a political advisor named Guy Danlily (Bobby Cannavale), Stacks roams the city in his luxury vehicles and wipes his hand clean of germs every five seconds. But he’s obviously empty, because movies have shown us that millionaires always are.
His heart has a space shaped like Annie (Quvenzhané Wallis), a sassy foster child who also roams the city looking for something to fill her void: her parents. After a meet-cute that could have had catastrophic consequences, Will becomes Annie’s caretaker, and we see the two create a bond that goes beyond blood ties. It’s a story we’ve seen before, and that seems refreshing because for once, the older guy isn’t romancing a girl, but trying to give her a home. The central theme of Annie has always been the search for a place to call one’s own, and Gluck’s film is so obsessed with the surface that we never really get to care for Annie. The musical numbers have been auto-tuned to the point where you half expect Nicki Minaj or Kanye West to pop out of a mopping bucket as the little girls complain about their “hard knock life”. There are also constant mentions of Google, Twitter, smart phones, and a myriad other products that, instead of reminding people about the importance of family, must have sent parents home with children frustrated at how humdrum their lives seem without the advantage of personal shopping sprees and holographic walls like Annie’s.
There’s also a major twist halfway through the film that seems to invalidate everything that came before, not to mention everything that comes after, which can’t help but leave a very bitter aftertaste in one’s mouth. This is certainly not the Annie we grew up with; instead of inviting us to escape the misery of life, it adds to it by reveling in the importance of refreshing one’s gadgets if they want love and happiness to follow.
The film is presented in 1080p high definition and a pristine sound mix, if you’re in the mood for its bombardment of Black Eyed Peas-like sounds. Extras include five sing-along tracks, a deleted song, bloopers, a cute little feature with the enchanting Wallis, trivia, and a strange piece of Annie all over the world, which just keeps up with the film’s insensitivity.