The best thing about the new big-screen version of Annie is that it has an exceptional Annie. Young Quvenzhane Wallis – who won an Academy Award nomination for her terrific work in Beasts of the Southern Wild – brings all of the adorable-moppet energy the role requires. The second-best thing about the new Annie is that it has a pretty good Daddy Warbucks (er, Will Stacks) in the form of Jamie Foxx (Ray), who demonstrates considerably more charisma in the part than he did in either of his other 2014 outings (the shrill Horrible Bosses 2 and the woefully misguided The Amazing Spider-Man 2). The third-best thing is... er... well, I may have run out of things.
Though certain elements of the original stage musical remain, a good deal of the the story has been altered. Annie (Wallis) is a foster child living under the roof of the nasty Ms. Hannigan (Cameron Diaz, There's Something About Mary). Hannigan serves as caretaker for a handful of young girls, not because she cares about them but because she's able to exploit their presence for financial gain (she receives $157 per child each month, but doesn't come close to spending that much on the girls).
Annie's life changes course when wealthy businessman and New York City mayoral candidate Will Stacks (Foxx) saves Annie from being hit by a vehicle. Someone photographs the heroic deed, and Will's poll numbers begin to skyrocket. The incident gives Will's campaign manager Guy Gamberling (Bobby Cannavale, Boardwalk Empire) an idea: maybe Will should take in Annie as a foster child. You know, just until the election is over. Will balks at the idea initially, but relents after recognizing the sort of effect such a move could have on his campaign.
You've seen this sort of tale before, in which an innocent young child warms the heart of a greedy/cynical/selfish grown-up. The film's best scenes are the ones which feature Foxx and Wallis simply hanging out together, as their evolving relationship provides most of the film's charms. It's hardly groundbreaking material, but it works. Unfortunately, that core tale is surrounded by a metric ton of material that underwhelms, bewilders and disappoints.
The original stage version of Annie doesn't exactly have the most delightful soundtrack of all time, but it's infinitely better than the “hip” blend of reworked older tunes and pop-centric newer tunes served up here. It's understandable that the rhythms of “It's the Hard-Knock Life” veer closer to Jay-Z's “Ghetto Life” (which memorably sampled the tune) than to the original incarnation, but the show's other iconic numbers tend to suffer from ungainly autotune, overcooked pop arrangements and some genuinely terrible vocal performances (I like Bobby Cannavale and Cameron Diaz just fine, but I never want to hear their version of “Easy Street” again). On top of that, a few of the songs are new compositions penned by Sia and Greg Kurstin (including “Opportunity,” Annie's big show-stopper), and they feel tonally out of sync with the other numbers (which in turn feel tonally out of sync with themselves). The music should have carried the flimsy plot, but instead the flimsy plot provides a welcome respite from the obnoxious music.
Things aren't just bad on an aural level. Annie features the sloppiest choreography I've seen since... honestly, I can't think of another mainstream musical featuring choreography this sloppy. Most of the dance sequences appear to be either improvised or hastily-staged, and there are more than a few moments in which it appears as if various participants are simply flinging themselves to one side of the room or another because somebody told them that's what they were supposed to do next. It would be one thing if the scenes were supposed to have a loose, ramshackle quality (like Robert Altman's Popeye, for instance), but the flick's glossy aesthetic demands something more polished.
The supporting performances tend to underwhelm as a general rule (Rose Byrne is wasted as Foxx's assistant, while Cannavale struggles to bring more than one note to his slippery role), but Diaz's take on Ms. Hannigan proves particularly frustrating. Diaz has demonstrated on multiple occasions that she's willing to take big chances when the role demands it (remember her turn in The Counselor?), but she goes so far over the top here that she turns the character into a tiresome cartoon who makes most Disney villains seem subtle in comparison. The film tries to deepen her with a third-act twist designed to make her seem sympathetic, but it's such an abrupt shift that it feels entirely unconvincing.
Speaking of which, most of the plot machinations in the film's final act stretch the boundaries of credibility. There's a nonsensical development involving the return of Annie's biological parents that requires a huge number of characters to completely ignore their logical instincts for the sake of stirring up some new drama. As Annie presses on, making two hours feel like three and growing less credible with each new scene, one can't help but wonder if anyone involved in the film ever had a vision for the movie beyond delivering a Jay-Z-influenced version of “It's a Hard-Knock Life.”
Rating: ★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 118 minutes
Release Year: 2014