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Annie

by on March 17, 2015
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annie 2014 - quvenzhane wallis, jamie foxx

The latest film version of the beloved children’s musical, “Annie” has had a long, difficult road. The project took several years of development (so many that producers Will and Jada Pinkett Smith’s daughter aged out of the title role), and only days before its theatrical release was leaked online due to the now-infamous Sony hack. As a movie, “Annie” is as bumpy as its journey to the screen, but as children’s entertainment it’s overall sweet and enjoyable, in large part to its diverse cast, New York City setting and whiz-bang lead actress Quvenzhané Wallis.

In this updated “Annie,” Wallis’ title character is no longer a scrappy Caucasian orphan, but a scrappy foster kid living in Harlem with her tyrannical caretaker, never-was hip-hop singer Colleen Hannigan (Cameron Diaz). Annie’s friends wait for permanent families, while Annie spends every Friday night sitting outside the restaurant where she was abandoned by her parents as a toddler. She’s about to be sent to a group home when a chance meeting with billionaire tycoon and mayoral candidate Will Stacks (Jamie Foxx) changes everything; Stacks’ conniving campaign manager Guy (Bobby Cannavale) convinces Stacks to take in Annie as a PR move. (“She’s a foster kid from Harlem! A foster kid! From Harlem!” Guy crows with glee.) Can a sassy little girl melt the cold heart of a Purell-loving but lonely rich guy? Unless you’ve been living in a cave since the 1970s, you know the answer, and it involves the word “tomorrow.”

The theatrical release of this “Annie” received largely bad reviews, and watching the DVD, I can see why. Though aimed at children, the movie is over two hours long. Some of the “updates” don’t work quite as well as others (Stacks’ technology-driven “smart apartment” is too overblown, and Annie’s secret revealed late in the film just lays it on too thick), plus the use of cell phones and social media goes too far. Though I’m usually a fan of Diaz, I found her Miss Hannigan (normally one of my favorite characters thanks to Carol Burnett’s legendary interpretation in John Huston’s 1982 movie) up there with the worst and most amateur community theater. Also, though Miss Hannigan does experience a change of heart in the stage musical and film versions, a “who am I?” ballad is not necessary.

Still, like its relentlessly optimistic title character, something about “Annie” sticks. For one, it’s got most of this year’s Oscar films beat when it comes to diversity. Unlike many films with a young, black lead character, this “Annie” doesn’t have a “white savior” unless you count Stacks’ sweet assistant, Grace (Rose Byrne), and I don’t. Only one of Annie’s foster sisters is obviously white, and neither “good” nor “bad” characters come in one single color. Like his predecessor Daddy Warbucks, Stacks talks about rising above an impoverished childhood through hard work, and extols the virtues of New York City as a place of opportunity for everyone. There are a lot of fun nods to the original stage show, surprise celebrity cameos and a hilarious “movie within a movie” sequence. Though the updated score doesn’t always ring true, Diaz and Cannavale’s version of “Easy Street” is sleazy fun, and director Will Gluck made the intelligent decision to keep the iconic “Maybe,” “It’s the Hard Knock Life” and “Tomorrow” largely unchanged.

Still a coveted role in the preteen girl set, Annie — or rather, the actress who plays her — can make or break a production. In this case, Wallis does the former. Whether she’s defending her dog from teenage bullies or cheerfully making an (inedible) breakfast for her reluctant foster dad, Wallis displays the beautiful openness and natural charisma that rightly earned her an Oscar nom for “Beasts of the Southern Wild” (a role she played at only six years old). Watching this young girl, who displays none of the plastic precociousness of 99 percent of child actors, I’m torn between wanting her to play every existing kid role before transitioning successfully to teen, then adult, actress, and hoping she’ll pull a Shirley Temple and eschew acting for politics. Either way, Wallis elevates this “Annie” from a run-of-the-mill children’s film (because at its heart, this “Annie” is for children) to a musical that isn’t always perfect, but brims with joy.

The Blu-ray / DVD combo pack special features include director’s commentary, a making-of featurette and the “You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile” music video (below).

Film: 3.5 Yaps
Extras: 3 Yaps

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