Race-bending the main character (Blannie?) and taking the original stage musical of 1933 Depression Era NYC and updating to a 2014 NYC hip-hop musical was truly a risky move on behalf of the seven (yes, SEVEN!!) producers and director Wil Gluck, who never directed a musical before. This troubled production had its problems from the get-go from casting changes to multiple screenwriting updates. Did that translate to the screen? Hoo-boy! Did it ever!
We start of with, curiously enough, red-haired Taylor Richarson, Broadway’s current “Annie” giving a school report. This is one of many nods to the original stage musical that pepper the movie that stars Quvenzhane Wallis as spunky Annie Bennett who is stuck in a ‘hard-knock life’ at Miss Colleen Hannigan’s (Cameron Diaz) apt. filled with five orphans (sorry, they like to be called “foster children”) in Harlem, NYC. Hannigan yells and screams at them ’cause she hates kids and her wasted life; she used to be promising singer that almost made it on the Arsenio Hall show. Her wanna-be boyfriend, Lou (Davis Zayas), runs the liquor store across the street and loves her acerbic ways. Go figure.
Anyway, Annie stalks an Italian restaurant called Domani’s (it means “Tomorrow”–get it? Like the song?) where her parents abandoned her. The broken locket she wears and the note they left are the only clues she has as to their existence. One day, Annie’s almost run over by a truck, but she’s saved by Will Stacks (Jamie Foxx), a germaphobic, multi-billoniare cell phone mogul who’s also running for mayor. That rescue raises his ratings in the polls and Stacks’ greedy campaign adviser, Guy (Bobby Cannavale) sees political gold in Annie. Grace Farrell (Rose Byrne), Stacks’ personal assistant, arranges for Annie to stay with her boss for a few weeks and the child couldn’t be happier.
As the two slowly bond, and Annie’s social media explodes (she’s given a Twitter account), Stacks comes to love Annie and wants to adopt her. She gets a dog, Sandy, at the pound and hides the fact that she’s illiterate. Unbeknownst to Will, Guy has arranged with Hannigan an unscrupulous plot to get fake parents for Annie to show up as a publicity stunt to boost Stacks slipping poll ratings. This devastates Will but overjoys Annie until the truth is revealed, and then the race is on to save Annie from the fake Bennett’s in a cross-town chase with cars and helicopters, and all using social media! The happy ending busts out in a final song (after all, this IS a musical) and we throw our popcorn in the air and scream, “Cry havoc! And let slip the dogs of war!” Well, at least I did.
It’s no secret that producer Will Smith’s daughter, Willow, wanted in as Annie, but pulled out after thinking twice about the project. Smart girl. Little kids will no doubt like all the goofy razzamatazz of this reworked Annie musical with Wallis’ wide-eyed cuteness and hip-hop singing, Foxx’s lovable father-figure, and Diaz’s wild cartoon-y boozing comedy, plus all the other assorted silly stuff. For adults, it’s a long, charmless, badly written mess. For theater fans and actors (such as myself), it’s a humiliating bastardization of the stage musical with songs and plots that have been twisted, skewered, ripped-to-shreds, butchered, and mangled so badly that it makes you wanna cry.
An embarrassing screenplay by Gluck, Aline Brosh McKenna, and (dare I even say this) Emma Thompson with songs that are supposed to be based on the beloved Broadway musical, but are all but missing here. The remaining ones have been re-interpreted as hip-hoppy, jazzy, or some other bizarre auto-tuned incarnation with different lyrics and weird scoring because… what, the original isn’t good enough?? They even put in new songs! Result? None of it works.
Gluck has an eye for directing likable comedies (Easy A, Friends With Benefits), but here he falls short and is in over his head. The choreography, what little there is of that, is laughably bad and the set-ups are so awful they’re cringe-worthy. It’s a train wreck, and not the good kind, either. I love Byrne, Foxx, Diaz, and even that Wallis kid individually, and you can see them straining to do their best here, but this movie is, to coin a lyric from the musical, “just plain awful”.
If you want to see HOW to make the Broadway Annie into a proper movie musical, and how to do it right, then you have two good choices: the 1982 Annie with Carol Burnett and Albert Finney or the 1999 Annie with Kathy Bates and Victor Garber. Both are far superior to this 2014 schlock.