[Screen It]


(2014) (Quvenzhane Wallis, Jamie Foxx) (PG)

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Musical: A down-on-her-luck foster child is taken in by a billionaire running for Mayor of New York City.
Annie (QUVENZHANE WALLIS) is a foster child in New York City, who lives under the thumb of a spectacularly mean foster mom named Miss Hannigan (CAMERON DIAZ). She shares a room with four other girls -- Tessie (ZOE MARGARET COLLETTI), Pepper (AMANDA TROYA), Mia (NICOLETTE PIERINI), and Isabella (EDEN DUNCAN-SMITH) -- but sneaks out every Friday evening to the Italian restaurant where her birth parents abandoned her as a baby years earlier. They left a note saying that they hope to reunite with her one day when they are better able to care for her. But they have never showed.

One day, Annie finds herself trying to rescue a stray dog when she is nearly hit by a vehicle, but saved at the last instant by Will Stacks (JAMIE FOXX). The billionaire cell-phone magnate is running for Mayor of New York City, but is trailing badly in the polls. When a YouTube video surfaces of Stacks saving Annie's life, Will's crooked campaign manager, Guy (BOBBY CANNAVALE), and Will's kind-hearted executive assistant, Grace (ROSE BYRNE), see an opportunity to humanize their rather awkward, elitist, germaphobic candidate. They convince him to take Annie in.

Soon, Annie is charming all of the five boroughs and Will pulls ahead in the polls. Guy goes in for the kill by teaming with Hannigan to hire two impostors to play Annie's "parents" and reclaim her as their daughter. But by that point, the question becomes: "Is her bond with Will too strong?"

OUR TAKE: 4.5 out of 10
Clearly, there are some who take issue with the classic musical "Annie" being updated and revised with an African-American Annie and Daddy Warbucks. I'm not one of them. I think Quvenzhane Wallis and Jamie Foxx as the two characters (Daddy Warbucks is now billionaire cell-phone magnate Will Stacks) are the two best things going for this new version. The real problem is the film is not a timid and not particularly confident updating. It's sort of stuck between not pissing off the legions of fans who have only known "Annie" one way since her Broadway debut in the late 1970s on up to the recent and very successful re-staging in New York and in road versions, and appealing to a whole new generation of kids raised on Justin Bieber, One Direction, and safe, corporate Kidz Bop hip-hop.

So, you get some songs like "It's a Hard Knock Life," "Easy Street," and "Tomorrow" that are very similar to the original versions and their entertainment value remains almost totally intact. Director Will Gluck doesn't photograph or choreograph any of these numbers with any great distinction. But they're in there. They sound good. You'll tap your toes. But other tunes like "I Think I'm Gonna Like It Here" and "You're Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile" are absolutely butchered. Computer hackers from the Far East couldn't have done a worse job re-dubbing these songs or adding soulless Disney Channel pop beats.

At the same time, the film moves the story out of the Great Depression era that gave the original musical some sorely needed context and dramatic weight. Indeed, this one is set in the modern day. Instead of Annie inspiring Franklin D. Roosevelt and his New Deal, she does a book report on FDR and his social changes. Well, this Annie can't read. She's illiterate (something that would have been picked up in the very nice public school she goes to). So, she does a musical book report.

There is some brief mention made of our recent Great Recession. But it takes no elected leader or party to task. For the most part, even poverty looks kind of fun in this flick, and the film spends an inordinate amount of time dwelling on the wish fulfillment side of the story as Annie goes to live in the swankiest penthouse Manhattan has seen since the days of Phillip Drummond and Arnold and Willis Jackson. Yes, in this version of "Annie," you root less for Annie to connect with Will Stacks as a surrogate poppa or find her real mom and dad, and more for her to get a new wardrobe, lots of bling, and attend star-studded movie premieres and fancy balls at the Guggenheim. Her four orphan friends get to go the film premiere, too, and are awarded free smartphones from Stacks. This apparently makes their hard-knock lives amazingly better because you really don't see much of them again.

Miss Hannigan, meanwhile, is played by Cameron Diaz. From trailers, I was really unsure about how broad and hammy Diaz was going to take her performance. But she actually is one of the few in the film who gets how you sort of have to overplay a Broadway musical in its translation to the silver screen. The character's arc is completely changed in the film's third act, probably because Diaz is a gorgeous and charming movie star and not a homely character actress easy to despise. But I went with it.

But, again, it's the unevenness of the film that kept pulling me out. Diaz does a solid job with her one big song "Little Girls," deftly changing it from a show-stopping villainess empowerment number to an angry commentary on the character's lot in life. But, not long after, you get a sappy new song called "Opportunity" sung by Wallis that sounds like something out of a children's talent show or beauty pageant that adds nothing to a film already tipping in at two hours not counting trailers and commercials. Little Wallis is a vastly better actress than singer, by the way. She has loads of charm and, uh, LOVE (!) the hair. But the part of Annie really does call for a little girl with a big, big voice. That said, at least it wasn't Willow Smith in the lead. Foxx and Byrne are fine, meanwhile, but they sing a bit soft, too. There's really no performance here on par with Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway in "Les Miserables," Renee Zellweger and Catherine Zeta-Jones in "Chicago," or Jennifer Hudson and Eddie Murphy in "Dreamgirls" -- all Oscar nominees (and three of 'em winners).

So a mixed bag, but not one worth paying theater admission money to see. It's not a terrible flick. The sun WILL come out tomorrow. And I'll continue to rate it as a 4.5 out of 10. (T. Durgin)

Reviewed December 13, 2014 / Posted December 19, 2014

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