Reviewed by Patrick Kavanagh-Sproull.
The last time I felt this giddy after a movie musical was Hairspray all the way back in 2007 and it’s no surprise that Adam Shankman’s remake of the 80s comedy is the closest parallel to this modern take on Annie. What differs this Annie from Hairspray, however, is that it brings with it a particular wit and buoyancy that fans of director Will Gluck’s previous efforts – Easy A and Friends with Benefits – will recognise. It’s got the Gluck watermark firmly stamped on it but as this is strictly family fare, Annie still allows itself scads of sugary but never cloying moments that are sure to warm the cockles of even the frostiest heart.
It was a film whose cast changed regularly (originally Will Smith’s daughter, Willow was lined up to star in the title role but she grew too old and subsequently dropped out; it’s still interesting to note Smith Sr. and wife Jada Pinkett Smith serve as producers) but finally the Annie mantle was passed to Quvenzhané Wallis who previously wowed in 2012’s Beasts of the Southern Wild. Wallis is incredible here: a cheeky, warm and natural talent, and her performance has whispers of her Beasts of the Southern Wild character, Hushpuppy as well as shades of Aileen Quinn’s enduring original incarnation of Annie. It is no wonder she received plaudits for her previous work and Annie is a step in the right direction for the young star’s burgeoning career. Hollywood, take note.
Despite selling itself as a contemporary update of a classic story, the plot of this new Annie remains awfully close to the source material bar some minor changes and it’s the casting that makes this adaption unique. Hiring Cameron Diaz as Miss Hannigan was an interesting choice, considering Diaz follows in the footsteps of Carol Burnett and Kathy Bates but here she portrays Miss Hannigan as Annie’s boozy, sleazy and washed-up foster mother with evident relish (“Hannigan’s my maiden name but I’m not married to it, if you get what I mean…”). Diaz is the comedy highlight of the whole film with some truly laugh-out-loud moments in the film’s first half.
Meanwhile, Jamie Foxx and Rose Byrne take on the roles of William Stacks and Grace Farrell, the billionaire mayoral candidate that takes in Annie to boost his popularity – and his brilliant PA respectively. Rose Byrne is marvellous and utterly convincing as the only woman in Annie’s life to display love and affection towards her. Foxx, too, is good, giving a nicely layered performance as he transforms Stacks from an antisocial workaholic to a caring family man. In addition, Blue Jasmine’s Bobby Cannavale is slightly underused but still strong in the role of Stacks’ guileful political advisor, Guy.
If you can’t identify Annie by name then, surely, the songs will jog your memory. The likes of “Tomorrow” and “It’s the Hard Knock Life” are timeless classics, remembered by generations and so the music is, undoubtedly, one of most heavily scrutinised aspects of the new Annie. This correspondent is thrilled to report that the soundtrack has not suffered in the remake process. “It’s the Hard Knock Life” has an added pop beat to it that has turned it into a deliriously catchy tune, establishing it as an earworm you’ll be humming all through Christmastime. “Tomorrow” works better on a stylistic level than musically with some cracking visuals as Annie warbles through New York’s backstreets, and “I Think I’m Gonna Like It Here” is fast and fun (even if it does have a whiff of autotune about it) as Annie adjusts to Stacks’ ultra-modern ‘smart’ house.
In essence, Annie works because it doesn’t take itself too seriously with Gluck inserting some delightfully fond jabs at the original (“What is a hard knock life?”) and a smattering of hilarious lines and visual gags (see if you can spot the brilliant in-joke in the opening scene). Overall, Annie carries itself with the same sharp, breezy energy that Easy A did and it pays dividends to what could have been yet another ‘why bother?’ remake.
To conclude, Annie is a spirited, quirky contemporary adaptation of a classic musical that’s brought to life by a charming central performance by Quvenzhané Wallis and some outstanding musical numbers. Despite the recent Sony Pictures Entertainment leak and the unfortunate critical mauling it has been receiving, I hope it does well; it’s a richly enjoyable Christmas treat.