Musicals just aren’t what they used to be today, that much is for certain. Even the better ones of recent years, like 2012’s Les Miserables, don’t completely live up to their full potential, and the song-and-dance showstoppers of the ‘50s are now long gone. With that, don’t go expecting Will Gluck’s modern-day revival of Annie to shake up the dying genre.
By now one assumes everyone is familiar with the story of lil’ orphan Annie, but in cause you need a refresher or are not in the loop, Annie centers on the titular character (Quvenzhané Wallis), a ten-year-old living under the care of foster mother Colleen Hannigan (Cameron Diaz), a bitter, washed-up former singer-turned-alcoholic, and her four other sisters. Upon chance, she’s inadvertently rescued from getting run over by billionaire New York City mayor candidate Will Stacks (Jamie Foxx). Seizing an opportunity to boost his deflating ratings, he takes the optimistic orphan under his care, only to grow an unexpected bound.
Considering this is the fourth film adaptation of the much-performed comic strip-based Broadway musical, this Annie should shake up the roster, even if just a little. Initially a vehicle for Willow Smith — with her parents, Will and Jada Pinkett, still on board as producers —in addition to the obvious changes to the main characters’ race, character names are also revised (Will Stacks, get it?), a majority of the songs are modernized and even a few new tunes are added. The problem isn’t in the conception, though, but the execution.
All the musical numbers intend to feel sporadic and sometimes have a tongue-in-cheek awareness to them. But because they’re all auto-tuned and lip-sung to hell, it’s impossible to interrogate them naturally into each scene. If that wasn’t enough, each song contains a similar repetitive, disinterested beat, making each number more and more boring.
Even the movie’s better numbers, like its revival of “It’s a Hard Knocked Life,” grow tiresome after a while. The only exception would be the new number “Opportunity,” which is a sweet, stripped-down melody that, while still fairly forgettable, is nevertheless charming. Still, one fine number does not make a solid musical. The music itself, however, is the least of this Annie’s problems.
Gluck’s filmmaking style doesn’t fit within the musical genre. The writer/director built his resume on sex-driven comedies, from Fired Up! to Easy A to Friends with Benefits. So when he has to let that go here, his directing comes across as too unconcerned and ineffective to work. His mundane camerawork with his cinematographer Michael Grady makes every musical number bland and visually disinteresting. Plus his ongoing instance to creep in sexual innuendos throughout this PG movie feels more awkward or, worse, unsettling than relieving for the adult audience.
Acting-wise, Foxx holds his own here, as do Rose Byrne, Adewale Akinnyoye-Aggaje, and David Zayas in supporting roles, despite their uncomfortably, overdone humor from Gluck and Aline Brosh McKenna’s screenplay. The rest of the cast, though, seems uncomfortable or misdirected. Wallis, while doing a fine job in her last lead role within Beasts of the Southern Wild, doesn’t have the comic timing and musical delivery necessary to shine here. I don’t like putting down 11-year-olds, but her performance is just too insecure here to work.
Also, while Diaz has never been a master class actress, her Razzie-worthy work here completely destroys any goodwill Annie could built when she’s on screen. Her screeching, unbearably overcooked performance holds no ounce of subtlety, and the movie has the nerve to try sympathizing with her character as it progresses. Then there’s poor Bobby Cannavale, giving his all to unsuccessfully make his stale lines and unflattering character click as Stack’s assistant.
One cannot fault this Annie for lacking heart. It wears its gooey sentimentality firmly on its sleeve, and duct tapes it there with three whole rolls. Despite its overly earnest nature, its well-mannered charm occasionally has its merits, mostly between the affable father/daughter chemistry Foxx and Wallis share. But the musical’s message about family and finding what matters is so overdone before and overbearing here that there’s no sense of care or urgency.
With Into the Woods yet to be released, there’s still time for musicals to make a stand this year, despite the flawed but highly enjoyable Jersey Boys also singing this summer. There can be a fun, modern-age adaptation of Annie to be made, but this is most definitely not it.
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