It’s kind of disheartening to sit here on the brink of lightly bashing the unceasingly-promoted Annie, which is actually quite sweet and well meaning, and which represents a very sincere attempt to mount a magic-tinged musical. Unfortunately, this modern adaptation of Thomas Meehan’s classic play is distractingly incompetent, failing to either make us invest our belief in this story or carry off the basic technical requirements of a successful movie musical – ya know, stuff like proper lip syncing.
Obviously it isn’t easy to adapt a musical for the big screen. The choreography is vastly different, there is no fixed proscenium to act as the safety net, and the songs must still soar while the performers can’t as readily reach for the back row. It’s a difficult task, and one that writer-director Will Gluck is not quite prepared for as a filmmaker. Too bad, since Gluck, as a veteran of rebellious, whip-smart comedies that are frequently awesome (Easy A, Friends with Benefits), possesses a sensibility would seem a perfect fit to transform outdated, earnest material. Not sure whether the culprit is a PG rating that tames Gluck’s more raucous natural tendencies or whether the heavy chore of the musical form sapped the poor guy’s verve, but this Annie is anything but subversive. In fact, outside of the casting of African-American leads (a welcome decision, admittedly) and shifting the setting to present day, this is basically a straight-laced adaptation where the themes aren’t altered, where the characters aren’t challenged in any tangible sense, and where the few original songs are more appealing than the tepid remixes of the stage musical’s original standards.
A few years back, while on the press circuit for Friends with Benefits, Gluck mentioned his style of musical would be ceaselessly self-referential; the characters would be in on the joke, so to speak. Everyone aware they are living inside a musical. Contrary to Gluck’s high ambition, Annie is not merely a kink-less, straightforward musical rendering, but it almost seems even more arbitrary than many other musicals. Not by virtue of any great self-referential charm, but due to the production’s inability to transition into musical mode with any remote eloquence. Most of the big numbers land with a graceless thud, thanks in no small part to dance numbers that aren’t well choreographed with the film editing, and the small matter that the character’s singing voices never quite sync up with their mouth movements.
The performances are what they are allowed to be within the confines of the film, which does no favors to these actors, most of whom do not have much, if any, musical experience. Quvenzhane Wallis is a fabulous choice for the title role, though she is permitted to neither exude the innocent naivete of her Oscar-nominated performance in Beasts of the Southern Wild, nor reach for a bigger, crowd-pleasing attitude that might have shifted our perspective on the Annie character. Jamie Foxx, as the film’s version of Daddy Warbucks (now dubbed Will Stacks), is the most talented singer of the cast and outdoes the material he’s given. Rose Byrne functions as window dressing, which is a total mishandling of her talents. Then there’s Cameron Diaz and Bobby Cannavale – he is the mustache-twirling villain without the mustache and she plays the evil Miss Hannigan as she might (and did) in a Saturday Night Live sketch. The film’s one Gluckian inside joke may well be that, in spite of every peripheral character telling Miss Hannigan that she has the voice of an angel, her persistently shrill musical performances completely contradict such notions. All that said, it is still kind of worth it to watch Diaz and Cannavale sing “Easy Street” together, just for kicks.
In spite of its overt flaws, it’s easy to envision legions of mothers and daughters getting caught up in the film’s undeniable sweetness, forgiving the many sequences that just don’t feel right because the film is cute enough to pass the time. But with the right perspective, the right tone, and the right filmmakers, this Annie could’ve been a modern classic. In its current form, it’ll be forgotten after the families leave the theater, walk back to the minivan, and turn back on the Frozen soundtrack.