It must be said that, if there was ever a time in which remaking Annie with a black protagonist would be seen as a vital and necessary addition to the lives of American children, it would be now. With the escalating racial conflicts that have acquired a constant presence in the American consciousness (and now specifically in New York, the city in which this story is set), there couldn’t be a better time to take a familiar story and rework it into the movie that will take the crucial step towards, once and for all, achieving some sort of racial equality in the media. Sadly, if director Will Gluck’s Annie was ever supposed to be that movie, it fails on account of how terrible it ended up being.
The Annie remake was sold to by star producers Jay-Z and Will Smith, two of the most influential and beloved black men in America (although Smith seems to have been losing some steam lately thanks to his questionable parenting techniques). It wasn’t an entirely crazy proposition, after all, Jay-Z had successfully sampled ‘It’s a Hard Knock Life’ into a hit. I imagine these men didn’t have a hands-on role in the production of Annie, because not only is Jay-Z’s version of ‘Hard Knock Life’ absent from the movie, but so is any ounce of the pathos and nuance that can be found in that track.
At the end of the day this is still a major Christmas release by Sony Pictures, so I’m not saying that we had to turn Annie into The Wire (although how cool would that be?), but the fact remains that what we have ended up with is the most sterile and prepackaged adaptation of the Charles Strouse and Martin Charnin musical that I could have imagined. It’s scary to think that this supposedly “edgy” modernization ends up being more toothless than a straight-forward adaptation would have been.
I’ll give the filmmakers this: you know you’re in for a terrible ride right away, when the movie starts with a traditional, ginger-looking Annie giving a presentation in class that bores all her classmates. Then, the teacher asks the “other” Annie to step forward, this one is played by youngest-ever-Oscar-nominee Quvenzhane Wallis, who explains the politics of the New Deal by making her classmates clap and stomp on their desks. Even ignoring the fact that Annie’s little spiel doesn’t make much sense as a way to explain FDR’s politics, the scene is one of the most transparently lame attempts at making a character seem “cool” I’ve ever seen.
In 2014, Annie is , and lives in a Harlem that looks like the result of our worst fears about gentrification coming true. This movie’s vision of New York is as lazily tourist that it feels almost like an insult. If you remember the original musical’s “N.Y.C.”, you’ll know his story has always positioned New York (like many other works of media have) as a place people dream their dreams will come true. The New York of this Annie looks like your generic shopping mall. The city that never sleeps has gone on Ritalin, and turned into this artificial piece of plastic that doesn’t allow for real life.
Everything in this movie shines with a hideous air-brushed glow, especially the horrific new arrangements of the musical’s score, something that, like I said, is even more irritating considering Jay-Z’s involvement in this enterprise. Quvenzhane Wallis ended up being a far better singer than I initially feared, but her voice is still buried underneath two dozen layers of Glee-fied auto-tuning. That, however, is only one of the ways in which Annie mistreats its lead actress. I don’t know what Benh Zeitlin did when he was filming Beasts of the Southern Wild, but Will Gluck can’t get a decent performance out of Wallis even if his life depended on it. It’s not her fault -I mean, she’s a child- but she is a zombie in this movie, a vacuum that delivers lines in the most inhuman way possible. Being completely honest, she borders on the scary.
As painful as it is to watch Wallis, though, the worst performance in the movie belongs to Cameron Diaz, whose Miss Hannigan has finally found the bottom of the well of the unfunny by playing every line to the back row of a house the size of Yankee Stadium. Also in the cast is Jamie Foxx, who play the Daddy Warbucks character -renamed William Stacks- who now is a media mogul running for mayor. This is important, because it’s a sign that the movie wanted to keep the original’s political commentary, and then do absolutely nothing with it.
Ok, that’s actually not true. It’s not that the movie doesn’t do anything with its commentary, but it is the case that it is absolutely content with barely caressing the surface of its themes in the most superficial and safe way possible. What’s the point of bringing Annie to the 21st Century? Is it about the recession? Obama’s America? The rise of social media? The movie’s answer is no. It’s not interested in commenting on any of these topics, yet wants the credit for doing so. Writing the words “going viral” in your script doesn’t mean you’re making any kind of commentary about our relationship to technology. Similarly, the movie’s view of wealth and luxury is as prepackaged as their vision of the city, and all its “clever” lines are made out of the kind of cheap shot that belong in third-rate Dreamworks Animation movies.
In any case, commenting on American life in a meaningful way isn’t required to be an acceptable movie. Not doing it certainly keeps this from being a good movie, but it could still work as a piece of sentimental entertainment. A melodrama about an orphan finding a new father figure… except there is zero chemistry between Jamie Foxx and Quvenzhane Wallis, and even less in the script to help the actors try to establish any kind of bond. William Stacks only realizes he loves Annie because we’re in the movie’s third act… oh, and because he sees her look like a dead-eyed android while singing at some sort of gala. There’s nothing to do about it, Annie is nothing but a shrill, shiny movie.
Grade: 2 out of 10.