As Will Gluck's new film version of “Annie” opens, an adorable red-haired moppet stands in front of her class reading a plucky book report. As she finishes, her teacher rolls his eyes and calls on the next student, Annie B. With that very post-modern move, things are handed over to Quvenzhane Wallis, who approaches her first scene the way she approaches literally every single second of the film: big smile in place, bouncing rather than dancing, and sing-talking her way through songs that demand a much better singer.
Harsh, perhaps, but from start to finish, “Annie” feels like a movie made by people who are deeply embarrassed to be working on a musical, and that's a problem. Wallis, who is an appealing young performer, simply doesn't have the chops for what has traditionally been one of the more demanding leads in a musical for a young performer, and Gluck, along with co-writer Aline Brosh McKenna, has built a film around Wallis that is constantly undercutting the songs, the choreography, and the entire idea of musicals. Jamie Foxx seems like he's the most comfortable out of all the cast members with the music, while Rose Byrne seems to have finally found something she's not awesome at, and Bobby Cannavale is either dubbed by another singer or has the single most “that is not what I would have expected” voice I've ever heard. Cameron Diaz growls her way though a couple of things, and between her singing and the way she plays Mrs. Hannigan, this might actually be cumulatively more uncomfortable than “Sex Tape,” no easy feat.
It's been said that the people behind the original stage musical were unhappy with the 1982 bigscreen adaptation starring Albert Finney, Carol Burnett, and little Aileen Quinn, but they had no idea how good they had it. At least that film understood that the big numbers are big numbers. Here, they include a few of the original songs, but arranged in ways that mute them, tone them down. The closet they come to a conventional arrangement is with “A Hard-Knock Life,” but even here, they have Hannigan interrupt to complain about “all the singing and dancing” a couple of times. Even some of the best known numbers from the original were simply discarded here, a baffling decision when there's nothing to replace them.
There's one early moment where Gluck shoots Annie walking through the streets, and there's a lovely subtle thing going on where Annie is seeing everyone paired off, parents and children together and safe, but only in reflections, only in passing, with reality shown to be harder and colder around her. It's the one moment in the entire film where Gluck seems to understand that musicals are meant to be impressionistic, not literal. Any time you're dealing in a form where people sing and dance to express emotion, you're obviously not dealing in reality, so I don't get the urge to try to ground everything and try to strip out any of the magic or any of the fun of that. The only time Gluck seems actively engaged with something in the movie is during a remarkably long and unfunny movie within a movie that is a parody of “Twilight,” complete with a full pop song treatment of that movie within a movie's theme that plays over the film's closing credits. The idea that the thing he's most excited about is what should just be a throwaway joke at most is a pretty clear indicator of just how wrong he is for the movie overall.
So much of the script has been reworked that this is essentially a new movie loosely inspired by the original “Annie,” not a straight adaptation. There are creative choices that seem to be the result of the casting, not a fully motivated character choice. Diaz, in particular, is playing a Hannigan that has been softened considerably. That would be fine if it made a point or if it paid off dramatically, but none of the choices that have been made to update or accentuate the material, but it's almost shocking how tone-deaf this movie is. Remember… you're talking about a story about an orphan from the streets being brought into a world of conspicuous wealth, and considering where we are as a country financially, there's some meaty material there to deal with, especially if you're going to do this version with a different focus on race. You'd never know it, though, looking at the actual film, and here's a case where I think Sony did themselves no favors by hiring the people they hired behind the camera. Will Gluck has done decent work in the past, with “Easy A” being his best film, but he's the wrong guy here. What perspective does he bring to this? You've got Jay-Z and Will Smith and James Lassiter all producing, and you've got Jamie Fox and Quvenzhane Wallis heading the cast, and you've got Gluck and McKenna writing and directing, and there is such a dissonance in those choices that it can't be ignored. The truth is that the change of ethnic background hasn't altered the material enough. I wish they'd gone further and really made that film, instead of making this thing that is full of fake cheer, set in a plastic world that I don't recognize as anyone's reality.
I'm equally shocked by how flat and dull the music is. Sia is the film's musical director, and based on her solo work or her songwriting, I would have expected something much more interesting and dynamic. She brought composer Greg Kurstin onto the film, and whether we're talking about arrangements or composition, it feels like the choices are a huge bust. There are at least three new songs, and there's not one of them that will be remembered with even 1/10th the fondness as the original “Annie” tunes. Jay-Z's sampling of “Hard-Knock Life” is a more genuine rendition of that song than the version that appears here, and it seems to me that Gluck has confused “Stomp” with what a musical is supposed to be, because everyone in this film seems to be kicking or stomping or whacking something. I've got some unhappy things to say about Rob Marshall's “Into The Woods” later this weekend, but Gluck makes Marshall look like Stanley Donen. Tia Nolan, who cut the film, obviously has to shoulder some of the blame as well, and so does cinematographer Michael Grady, because it's cut like someone was angry at the footage and shot like someone's allergic to seeing a dancer's feet.
It's frustrating to find so little to like about a film like this, because it's innocuous enough on a surface level. One could even call it harmless. But it's a movie that disrespects the very genre in which it exists, and there are so few big movie musicals made that it feels like even more of a missed opportunity. I know that parents are desperate for family-oriented options this holiday season at theaters, but this is a bust, though and through.