|Annie and Stacks in Annie|
“I Think I’m Gonna Like It Here”
A Review of Annie by Nick Olszyk
MPAA Rating, PG
USCCB Rating, A-II
Reel Rating, Four Reels
Annie is one of the better musicals in recent memory; 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 when the reboot is 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. This sounds very profound, but never fear, kids. This Annie will still give you the warm Christmas 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.” Maybe that’s just what America needs anyway.
The first image really throws the audience for a loop. A cute Irish elementary girl gives a standard golly-g report on William Henry Harrison to her class including a small 30s song and dance. Then Annie (Quvenzhané Wallis) presents an entirely musical New York style report on Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal that sounds more like Jay-Z (one of the producers, I kid not) than Rogers 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 orphanage, as frequently pointed out) with the alcoholic former singer Miss Hannigan (Cameron Diaz). Meanwhile, self-made billionaire and cell phone magnate Will Stacks (Jammie Foxx) is trailing 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 getting in a traffic incident by Stacks; luckily, it was 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 real parents.
Annie is a nearly perfect adaptation of the 1977 musical that is faithful to the original material without being constrained by it. Such films can easily fall into two extremes of either being slavishly obsessed with being “true to the book” (Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns) or so free in interpretation to be barely recognizable (Peter Jackson’s Hobbit marathon). The biggest change 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 just make him 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 Blunt are also remarkable as the female supporting characters. Like Cruella deVil, Diaz is a magnificent villain one loves to hate. Blunt is stogy enough to be with Stacks 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 besides the high pitched singing. The main story seems to confirm a popular Socialist criticism of a capitalist fantasy that the poor have to be plucked out of obscurity by the rich. Also, 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 that creates such a wide divide. There’s a little grain of truth in this, but it would be nearly impossible to make a musical that addresses such a difficult issue while still retaining a lighthearted nature. What Annie does argue effectively is that wealth does not create happiness, 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.
An easy way to see to signs of the times in Annie is the pervasive nature of social media. Everyone with a phone becomes a whistleblower with a worldwide audience. A single photo or video can change a person’s life in an instant, fortunately used here to help Annie rather than bully her. This makes for some very big laughs at an obviously ridiculous situation. It’s a healthy dose of needed criticism against the digital age, but also implicitly supports corporate invasion of privacy.
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 of the first black Annie with a black Warbucks. After the realization that Annie and Stacks are black in the first few minutes, Wallis and Foxx are so good, you completely forget their race and the silly conversation surrounding it. Now that I think about it, that is a pretty big deal.
This article first appeared in Catholic World Report on January 8th, 2015.