MPAA Rating: PG
USCCB Rating: A-II
Reel Rating: (4 out of 5)
The new film adaptation of Annie is one of the better Hollywood musicals in recent memory; it is easily the best since 2012’s Les Misérables. While supported by wonderful performances and clever writing, its strength comes from the significant changes made to the source material, a rare instance of the reboot being better than the original. Annie keeps the central plot line and cherished protagonist but completely re-writes the script to make the tale more attuned to 21st century sensibilities. But never fear, kids—this Annie will still give you the warm fuzzies. It also tries to engage the deeper issues of poverty and social class but never overreaches, preferring to just have fun and remind the audience that tomorrow “is only a day away.”
The differences are evident from the first scene. A cute Irish-looking elementary school girl gives a perky report on William Henry Harrison to her class, including a 1930s-style song and dance. Then Annie (Quvenzhané Wallis) presents a very different musical report on Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal that sounds more like Jay-Z (one of the film’s producers, I you kid not) than Rodgers and Hammerstein. It’s a winking reminder that this won’t be your grandma’s Annie.
Annie and her friends live in a foster home (not an orphanage, as is frequently pointed out) with alcoholic former singer Miss Hannigan (Cameron Diaz). Meanwhile, self-made billionaire and cell phone magnate Will Stacks (Jammie Foxx) is far behind in the polls for mayor of New York City. He is obsessed with work and finds meeting “the people” annoying and unhygienic, keeping dozens of bottles of hand sanitizer in his chauffeured, luxury car. Annie is serendipitously saved from a traffic incident by Stacks; it is caught on video and becomes a viral hit. Stacks and his personal assistant Grace (Rose Byrne) decide to temporarily foster Annie to improve his numbers. Annie likes Stacks and decides to make him a better person, but her heart is ultimately set on finding her biological parents.
Annie is a nearly perfect re-envisioning of the 1977 musical that is faithful to the original material without being constrained by it. Adaptations, of books or earlier films, can easily fall into one of two extremes: either being slavishly obsessed with being “true” to the source material (Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns) or being so free with the original as to be barely recognizable (Peter Jackson’s Hobbit marathon). The biggest change in Annie is the character of Daddy Warbucks, now replaced by Foxx’s Stacks, and it is a major improvement. Previously, Warbucks was an aloof businessman who sought out an orphan to make himself look better. Here, Stacks meets Annie entirely by accident, and there are real stakes involved in their relationship. Stacks also has a huge arc, shifting from a controlling loner to caring not just about Annie but all the people around him, eventually mustering the humility to make his first truly selfless decision.
Diaz and Byrne are also remarkable as the female supporting characters. Diaz’s Miss Hannigan is a magnificent villain one loves to hate. Byrne is stodgy enough to be believable as Stacks’ assistant but soft enough to change his heart. The original songs are choreographed in a fresh and exciting way, although several new songs have also been added that fall flat when placed next to their classic counterparts.
There’s always been a little discomfort with the various adaptations of Annie. The main story can be criticized as the embodiment of the capitalist fantasy that the poor have to be plucked out of obscurity by the rich. It could also be argued that since the servants and orphans in Annie seem so happy and the rich are so compassionate, there is no real need to change the social system. There’s a grain of truth in this, but it would be nearly impossible to make a musical that addresses such difficult issues while still retaining a lighthearted tone. What Annie does argue effectively is that wealth does not lead to happiness, but that family and friends do. Poverty does cause unjust suffering, but being poor does not mean one must be unfulfilled. Lastly, all people are called to compassion regardless of their economic station.
The most important element of Annie is that it is a lot of fun. Wallis is captivating in every scene, with the same independent spunk of her cinematic ancestors but with new twists (including a great take on the “Annie hair”). Leading up to the premiere, many film critics and news pundits made a big deal about the first black Annie with a black Warbucks. But Wallis and Foxx’s performances are so good one forgets completely about the silly controversy over their race. And that is a big deal.
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