The new Annie opens with a tap dance. An adorable moppet named Annie (Taylor Richardson) goes at it, smile bright, arms manic, hair curly and red. Cut to her audience: a schoolroom full of classmates. They all look bored. Next up for the year’s end essay presentation, another Annie (Quvenzhané Wallis), who goes on to engage the other kids in a lively percussive performance, all about class inequality in America. It’s a huge hit with the kids, who like to clap and stamp their feet on cue. The Great Depression, she sums up, was “pretty much just like now, but without the Internet.”
Yes, this is a new Annie, decidedly anti-nostalgic and only clumsily cynical. Featuring cellphones, surveillance technologies, and a New York mayoral race by way of tabloid media, it’s a hodgepodge of pop-cultural references, auto-tuned vocals, and dance-like numbers. Directed by Will Gluck, produced by Will and Jada Smith and Jay-Z (whose inspired appropriation of “It’s the Hard-Knock Life” back in 1998 now seems like much-missed ancient history), the movie is also one of the films leaked online following the Sony hack, an unfortunate footnote to its subplottish interest in how the internets can wreak havoc with corporate schemes.
Here that scheme has to do with the revamped Daddy Warbucks character, no longer a white guy in a bad wig but now Jamie Foxx, playing a super-rich cell phone entrepreneur named Will Stacks, now running for mayor. This process means we are to assume that his genius at marketing phones (“Never drop a call!”) translates to political campaigning and then, apparently, governing; not surprisingly, no one mentions what this might mean, as winning the election seems to be the only end in sight.
Stacks is really a good fellow acting like a bully. His goodness is in need of better public display, which is indicated in his first encounter with Annie, when he saves her from being hit by a truck on the street. When this event is captured on cellphone video and uploaded to YouTube, Stacks’ campaign manager Guy (Bobby Cannavale) determines that they must meet again, with a gaggle of news photographers on hand.
Guy’s the guy Dermot Mulroney played in The Candidate, the ferocious political operator, here with a reduced threat of lethal violence. Guy’s also the guy who makes Stacks look better, as his conniving is relatively less odious than his employer’s willful ignorance. Neither man looks good compared to Stacks’ very sweet personal assistant, Grace (Rose Byrne, whose exuberant rooftop dancing bit with Annie looks like half-fun, half-hard work): as the movie’s designated Nice Lady, Grace sees in Annie and also in Stacks what they don’t see in themselves. She encourages, supports, and loves them unconditionally, she’s the mom anyone would want, and both Stacks and Annie need.
Grace’s opposite — because she must have one according to this movie’s feeble imagining of women — is Miss Hannigan (Cameron Diaz), the crass and avaricious foster mom who tells her young charges again and again that she’s only keeping them so she can be paid — another state-systemic dysfunction the film notes in passing but can’t be bothered to think through. Miss Hannigan sings noisily about her distaste for little girls, while gesturing melodramatically toward her own lamentably generic past: once a wannabe rock singer who wore lots of mascara, she met up with a series of exploitative types, leaving her angry and abusive. The girls in her charge resist as they can, sweeping and mopping to a beat, sneaking out when they can, singing lots.
Miss Hannigan sees the error of her ways, as she must, like everyone in the film, which is to say, by seeing this error exposed on social and mass media. The kids (meaning Annie and the other foster children ensconced at Miss Hannigan’s) and the political operators seem to be of a piece here, in that they understand the reach of such technologies, how to brand and how to sell stuff for profit. The kids are allowed some other sorts of pleasures, but only barely, as Stacks throws a party and the guests sugar-rush about in a Panem-like cartoon space, where all the furniture is too big, the costumes are too bright, and the faces too expressive.
In its aggravatingly choreographed frenzy, the party scene epitomizes Annie, its trying too hard both to be and not be the previous Annies, its trying too little to be innovative or vaguely inspired. It’s as crass as Miss Hannigan and as greedy as Stacks, at least until they learn their lessons. The movie doesn’t appear to learn a thing.