Review – An Orphanage Never Looked So Good (“Annie”)

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!
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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.

OLIVER! (1968)
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Few movie musicals about an orphaned kid who’s having a ‘hard-knock’ life are as enjoyable as this one. But what if that kid is beaten, left for dead, apprenticed at a funeral home with a sadistic co-worker, and then runs away to be in the company of thieves and murderers? Hey, now THAT sounds like a fun a musical, doesn’t it!? Yeah, that’s 0liver! the musical, adapted from Charles Dicken’s masterpiece about Oliver Twist’s depressing and gruesome life as a child. No, really, this musical kicks butt!Made with overwhelming British exuberance (they wrote the book on staging a dance number!) and impeccable casting, we have 10-year-old Oliver Twist (Mark Lester) languishing in an orphan asylum until he DARES to ask for more food! Cheeky devil! He’s ousted and sold on the street by the asylum’s Mr. Bumble (Harry Secombe) to funeral director, Mr. Sowerberry (Leonard Rossiter). But Oliver is harassed there by the wicked Noah Claypole (Kenneth Cranham) until he runs away to London where he meets young Jack Dawkins, aka The Artful Dodger (Jack Wild in his signature role). He’s leader of a large group of Lost Boys under the thieving tutelage of Fagin (the incredible Ron Moody) and ushers Oliver in as the new kid in town and a life of petty crime.

In the secret hideaway, Oliver meets Nancy (Shani Wallis), the lovely messenger girl to the meanest and dangerous crook in town, Bill Sykes (Oliver Reed at his finest). After teaching Oliver the art of pickpocketing, he’s nabbed by the cops, but is taken in by the kindly Mr. Brownlow (Joseph O’Conor) who, we come to find out in an incredible coincidence, is really Oliver’s grandfather.

Oliver loves his posh new life with Mr. Brownlow, BUT Sykes fears Oliver will rat on him and Fagin’s gang, so they kidnap him. Nancy, who loves the kid, re-kidnaps Oliver and gives him back to Brownlow, but at the brutal cost of her life. In the end, Sykes gets his violent comeuppance, Fagin and Dodger try to go legit (yeah. . .right!), and Oliver has his happy life back after going through hell. All this with terrific musical numbers!

This movie musical (based on the Broadway musical) killed at the box office and garnered a whopping 11 Academy Award noms and won five! Screenplay by Vernon Harris who adapted the stage musical for the screen, didn’t stray too far from the original source material, but he did change the conclusion, giving Fagin and Dodger a happier ending. Carol Reed directed this larger-than-life musical spectacular with both parts raucous joy (“Oompah-pah-pah”, “Be Back Soon”) and poignant sadness (“As Long As He Needs Me”, “Where Is Love?”) all rolled into one terrific family movie that made household names for Wild, Reed, and Moody –  Wild especially, who after this movie went on to play Jimmy on the hit kids’ TV show, H. R. Pufnstuf. 

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