Going into the newest big-screen version of Annie, I actually had some hopes for its success. Yes, the Broadway show is a saccharine piece of work that scored a huge hit in 1977 largely because a depressed America wanted to be cheered up by a cute little girl and her dog. Still, the movie updates the Great Depression story to the present day, features a terrific cast and a bright, up-and-coming comedy director, and even takes the risk of pissing off the Annie purists (not to mention some more malignant types) by casting an Oscar-nominated African-American girl in the title role. At the very least, the movie would improve on the lumbering, overstuffed 1982 film version, right? Well, not in any meaningful way, it turns out.
The story begins with Annie Bennett (Quvenzhané Wallis) — a foster kid and not an orphan, she takes pains to point out — who maintains an eternally upbeat attitude despite living under the thumb of her awful foster mother Miss Hannigan (Cameron Diaz). Annie’s life changes when Will Stacks (Jamie Foxx), a smartphone magnate who’s running for mayor of New York City, is filmed pulling Annie out of the way of oncoming traffic. With Will’s heroics boosting his flagging campaign, his sleazy campaign manager (Bobby Cannavale) convinces him that adopting Annie would be the best way to amplify the sudden burst of public goodwill. Annie agrees to go along with the whole PR ploy, but she also knows there’s a good man hiding inside the grouchy, work-obsessed Will.
The director here is Will Gluck, who scored a hit in 2010 with his delightful high-school comedy Easy A, though his form dipped the following year with his sex comedy Friends with Benefits. He has an eye for a throwaway gag and makes sure to portion out funny business to both the stars and the supporting players. He doesn’t always get the right actors — if you didn’t think it was possible to overplay the part of Miss Hannigan, just watch Diaz’ wretched turn in the role — but he does have a good success ratio. Here, he gives us a bit with a germ-phobic Will squirting hand sanitizer into his mouth, a disastrous foray when Will tries to work at a soup kitchen, and a running gag in which Will’s loyal, poised British corporate VP (Rose Byrne) keeps inadvertently dropping hints about her deeply maladjusted childhood. The movie goes off on a pleasing tangent parodying young-adult fantasy-adventure films by having Annie and Will attend the movie premiere of a terrible-looking Twilight knock-off (whose stars are played by Ashton Kutcher, Mila Kunis, and Rihanna). There are enough laughs here to make you see how Annie might have succeeded as a nonmusical comedy.
The most basic problem is that the musical numbers don’t work. For a musical, that’s fatal. Even if everything goes wrong, a musical can be redeemed by just a few showstoppers. Conversely, if the numbers suck, the musical fails no matter what else is working. The movie reworks the soundtrack, with Gluck, Greg Furstin, and pop star/songwriter Sia collaborating on original songs and updating the 1930s references from Charles Strouse and Martin Charnin’s songs from the stage musical. The new songwriters’ contributions are negligible, and even if they weren’t, the songs are so overproduced that you can barely hear the actors’ voices (though in the case of Diaz and Cannavale, that’s not such a bad thing). Zach Woodlee’s choreography doesn’t help out these performers, either.
The actors here are funny, but none of them looks remotely comfortable bursting into song and dance, except for Stephanie Kutrzuba as a jaded Slavic social worker who unexpectedly busts out some dance moves during “I Think I’m Gonna Like It Here” and steals the number clean away. The movie was actually shot in New York City; you’d think it would be easy finding some experienced Broadway performers to fill some of these roles. As for Wallis, the star of Beasts of the Southern Wild does the best she can with the singing, and the new song “Opportunity,” backed by a lean orchestral arrangement, hits somewhere close to home. However, a song like “Tomorrow” works only with a powerhouse voice, and that’s just not what Wallis offers. She’s set up to fail, like just about everyone else connected with this misbegotten musical, and she deserved a better outing.
Starring Quvenzhané Wallis and Jamie Foxx. Directed by Will Gluck. Written by Will Gluck and Aline Brosh McKenna, based on Thomas Meehan’s musical and Harold Gray’s comic strip. Rated PG.