Poor little orphan Annie. Despite the fact that her parents abandoned her as a child, audiences have long been enamored with the adorable urchin. From Harold Gray’s daily comic strip, which introduced the character to the world and began all the way back in 1894, to the 1977 musical that ran for six years on Broadway and was then adapted in to a 1982 feature film, Annie has always resonated with viewers thanks to her adorable antics.
Because of Annie’s evergreen popularity it was hardly a surprise when Sony announced their plans to make an updated remake. Will Smith and Jada Pinkett-Smith were the ones who led the charge to bring Annie back to the big-screen, and they decided to hire Shawn Carter, who is more famously known as Mr. Beyonce, aka Jay-Z, to try and bring a modern edge to the film’s legendary music. However, it took a while for Annie to finally be ready for production. Will Smith’s daughter, Willow, was originally intended to play the titular cherub, but she was eventually replaced by the Oscar-nominated star of Beasts of the Southern Wild, Quvenzhané Wallis. Meanwhile Annie’s script went through several permutations as Emma Thompson, Aline Brosh McKenna, and finally Will Gluck worked on it, while Glee’s Ryan Murphy was eventually replaced by the latter in the director’s chair, as well.
Unfortunately, despite this bevy of creative talent, Annie ultimately fails because of the fact that they were unable to gel and this uncertainty permeates throughout the film. Annie actually does start quite promisingly, though. We are delightfully introduced to Quvenzhané Wallis’ Annie Bennett in her Harlem school, and she instantly warms the screen thanks to her captivating charisma. Plus, it also helps that she is downright cute as a button. In fact, the film’s opening joke is a wonderful little tip of the hat to the character’s history, and it teases that Annie redux could indeed be a funny, loving and boisterous addition to her cannon of works.
That proves to be a false dawn.
Alongside four other foster children, Annie Bennett lives in Harlem with Cameron Diaz’s Colleen Hannigan, a mean drunk who only looks after this quintet of infants to receive money from the government. Annie pines to be reunited with her parents, who abandoned her when she was only a few months old, and she is adamant that it will happen. Despite the depravity of her situation, Annie is permanently upbeat. Her luck begins to change when she bumps into Jamie Foxx’s Will Stacks, a cell phone mogul who is running to become the mayor of New York City. Behind in the polls, Stacks’ campaign advisor Guy (played by the always watchable Bobby Cannavale) decides to take advantage of the fact that Stacks saved the life of Annie by convincing him to adopt her for a few weeks.
Annie actually does a good job setting up its plot. Scenes are punctuated by amusing lines, and while some of the early musical numbers don’t land, especially Maybe and a limp version of Tomorrow, It’s the Hard-Knock Life is a given a modern twist that you can’t help but be engrossed by. Meanwhile, Quvenzhané Wallis effortlessly glows as she saunters through the film, and while her Golden Globes nomination for Best Actress in a Motion Picture – Comedy or Musical might be a bit of a stretch, you really can’t begrudge her success.
Annie’s problems start once she goes to live with Will Stacks. Any semblance of the film’s narrative is soon abandoned. The pair are carted from scene to scene as Annie becomes accustomed to her new, extravagant life and grows closer and closer to Stacks. But these moments are created in such a brazenly unoriginal fashion that they fail to captivate. Meanwhile, Annie’s flimsy plot soon loses all coherence, which given its storied history is frankly unforgivable once a romantic plot between Stacks and Rose Byrne’s Grace Farrell is shoehorned in, and the laughable conclusion is so contrived that literally zero tension or intrigue is created. Annie’s most damning flaw, though, is the lack of energy, originality or panache in its musical numbers. One of them literally sees Jamie Foxx singing to Quvenzhané Wallis while they are both strapped into helicopter chairs.
Cameron Diaz, Jamie Foxx, Bobby Cannavale, and Rose Byrne try their hardest to elevate the film, but even they seem to give up the ghost once Annie hits the hour mark. Only Quvenzhané Wallis can really claim that she saved Annie from being a total disaster, while the fact that its heart is in the right place is its only redeeming feature. In the end, Annie is miraculous for just two reasons. Not only does it make you not care about an abandoned orphan, but you’re even nonplussed when she finally finds a family, too.