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Cast of Annie sings "Tomorrow."

Barry Wetcher

1 out of 4 stars

Written by
Will Gluck and Aline Brosh McKenna
Directed by
Will Gluck
Starring
Quvenzhané Wallis, Cameron Diaz, Jamie Foxx
Classification
PG
Country
USA
Language
English

Last winter I was taking care of my friends' kids, who were 3 and 5 at the time. After plying ourselves with chicken fingers and chocolate, we decided to watch a movie. They wanted an umpteenth viewing of Ice Age 2, but I had other plans: We would watch my own childhood favourite, Annie.

I'll admit that as the opening titles rolled, I wondered how this personal touchstone – one featuring a pack of not-animated, drably dressed orphans, FDR and the Great Depression – would play with my young companions, who are coming of age in an era where children's entertainment is as targeted and methodically crafted as designer drugs.

I needn't have worried, though. Turns out that engaging characters, infectious melodies, suspense, drama and dance extravaganzas appeal to children of all eras.

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If only the powers that be behind the new Annie movie had kept this basic truth in mind.

It's not that I was ever thrilled at the prospect of a reboot – ain't broke, and so on. Still I get it: Recycling the classics for new audiences has emerged as a reliable cash cow for movie studios, right up there with comic-book-hero franchises and Liam Neeson action flicks.

I vowed not to be the sort of narrow-minded curmudgeon who would close my heart to the potential of a new project just because it wasn't the Annie of "my day." For starters, the 1982 John Huston version is itself a remake of the 1977 Broadway show (no doubt it received its share of curmudgeonry from theatre purists). And regardless of who's wearing the red dress, the power sources of Annie are its song-and-dance numbers. Nobody, I assumed, would be foolish enough to mess with that pre-established magic. (Spoiler alert …)

The reboot is directed by Will Gluck – an odd choice, given his slim resume and lack of musical experience. In it, Annie (played by a suitably plucky Quvenzhané Wallis) is a 10-year-old who lives in Harlem with a pack of sing-songy fellow foster-kid friends. Their caregiver is a failed pop star turned prolific vodka drinker, Colleen Hannigan (Cameron Diaz).

One day, Annie darts into traffic and is saved by Will Stacks (Jamie Foxx), a telecom billionaire who is running for mayor and suffering from a likeability crisis. A recent clip of him spitting out mashed potatoes in the faces of homeless people has gone viral because, you know, it's 2014.

Annie 2.0 is packed with such aren't-we-modern details: Hannigan wants to be on MTV; Annie becomes a social-media celeb after Stacks invites her to move in with him (see aforementioned likeability issue); Stacks's home is a sleek Manhattan penthouse with no staff. "I prefer to be alone," he explains both to his young house guest and also to theatregoers old enough to remember the singing butler and the dancing chambermaids and the rest of the gang who filled Daddy Warbucks's sprawling estate with so much life and energy. When Annie sings I Think I'm Gonna Like It Here (butchered into auto-tuned ear-abuse in this new version), it's difficult to imagine why any 10-year-old would.

Of the movie's dozen musical numbers, only three are relatively unmangled versions of their predecessors. The rest are either aggressively not-catchy new songs or "reimaginings" (read: pointless electro-laced ruinings) of once winsome fun such as You're Never Fully Dressed Without A Smile and Easy Street. Note that it's not impossible to update this sort of music, as demonstrated by Jay-Z's awesome hip-hop version of Hard Knock Life (1998). Further note that Beyoncé's better half is a producer of the new Annie and was originally attached to do some music. The fact that he didn't makes me wonder if he saw where the project was headed, and opted to save his reputation.

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Rep-control seems to be at the heart of Foxx's performance, which is fine, but it feels like he can't wait to get in an eye-roll after each take. Diaz, on the other hand, goes all in, shouting and rubber-facing her way through migraine-provoking music and nudge-nudge jokes about Hootie & the Blowfish and how musical theatre is inherently lame (but wait a sec …). It's the type of humour that – like Diaz herself – felt fresh in the mid-1990s, which is maybe an unnecessary and heartless thing to say, but having recently sat through Annie, unnecessary and lacking heart are top of mind.

All of this being said, there is still a pressing question to address, which is whether or not young people will like this movie. The answer is that they probably will – it's loud and colourful and there's a scene in which the orphans go to a party with all-you-can-shove-in-your-mouth candy. It's even possible that Diaz's drunken antics will elicit underage laughs, but we're talking cheap thrills.

The notion that any child of today will be waxing poetic about this movie 30 years from now is as inconceivable as the fact that Carol Burnett didn't get a Oscar nomination for her portrayal of Miss Hannigan in 1982. And so – to quote that vile and magnificent woman – do the little pig droppings in your life a favour and download the Huston version instead.

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