The original Broadway Annie was a kiddie musical that wasn't for kids. It was a period piece about the Great Depression — both a hooray for Warbucksian success and an elbow-jab making clear that rich folk need to share — with a detour into a Hooverville and a key cameo from Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Even in 1977, you can imagine restless kids in the theater kicking their seats and loudly whispering, “Who's that guy?”
Every version since has gotten younger and younger. John Huston's 1982 movie cut the child-confounding songs “We'd Like to Thank You, Herbert Hoover” and “New Deal for Christmas,” and added two ditties about Annie's dog. And this new flick scraps the 1933 setting altogether and plops Annie into modern-day Harlem, a bodega playground, updating the lyrics with references today's children can understand — at least, today's children with subscriptions to Teen Vogue. Now, in “You're Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile,” your clothes aren't “Beau Brummell–y,” but “Chanel, Gucci.”
Producers Jay-Z and Will and Jada Pinkett Smith must have beamed when they discovered that rhyme — and, to be fair, their three children are fashion-forward. (Two-year-old Blue Ivy was recently spotted in a black leather jacket, which style blogs sniffed she copied from Kim Kardashian's baby, North West.) There's a sense that neither they nor director Will Gluck know what normal kids — the kind they need to buy tickets to Annie — think is cool. Instead, once again this is an Annie for adults, only now the spin is less “Remember the social-welfare lessons of the Great Depression?” and more “Hey, rich people are nice, too.”
Fittingly, the filmmakers have given evil orphan wrangler Miss Hannigan (Cameron Diaz) what, to them, must be the ultimate pathetic backstory: She's a wannabe pop star, fired from C+C Music Factory, who couldn't even hack it as one of Hootie's Blowfish. (So embarrassing.) Diaz suffers through a part that makes her wear sparkly scarves and a scowl — she's bitter, not scary. What's surprising isn't that her Hannigan is scraping by fostering orphan girls at $157 a week each — it's that she hasn't forced them into singing servitude by trotting them out for America's Got Talent.
This Annie is so modern that the girl's benefactor, Will Stacks (Jamie Foxx), is a telecommunications baron running for mayor. It presumes that children care a great deal about cellphone towers, political campaigns, and Twitter. When Annie (Quvenzhané Wallis) first enters Stacks's home, he and his two assistants (Rose Byrne and Bobby Cannavale) spend the scene tapping on their smartphones, which seems less like a statement about disconnection and more like a casual acceptance that this is The Way Adults Are Now. And instead of being impressed by a gilded mansion crammed with a hundred servants, she's dazzled by a cold, modernist penthouse with merely a “smart wall” that responds to her voice. Is she an abandoned 10-year-old looking for a forever home, or a party planner?
The 2014 Annie doesn't trust the universal yearning in the songs to carry the film. Instead, it glosses the old standards with drumline stomps and Beyoncé-style backbeats cranked up so loud you can barely hear the words in “Tomorrow.” The new songs all have that generic anthemic awe that sells luxury cars and headphones, and the millennial assurance that anything is possible if you believe in yourself. Still, they're good, in the loosest definition of the word — Foxx can make every chorus sound great, even if his R&B falsetto couldn't sound stranger spilling out of a germaphobic billionaire.
The only thing Foxx's Stacks has in common with Daddy Warbucks is that both men are rich and bald. (Though Stacks secretly wears a wig.) He's so unintimidating that Annie's first words to him are “Slow your roll.” But at least he fares better than Sandy the dog, who pants in the background as though the screenwriters knew there had to be an animal, but for the life of them couldn't remember why.
Wallis is a strong screen presence. Her gift as a child star is that she genuinely doesn't seem to care what grown-ups think. Unlike Huston with the original film's Annie, Aileen Quinn, a stage-trained charmer who dutifully tap-danced through the film, director Gluck seems to have decided the best way to use Wallis is simply to let her do whatever she wants. She's raw, charismatic, alive, and unpredictable: In her biggest solo number, every time Gluck cuts to Annie singing on a stage, it's a crapshoot whether she'll be preening like Billie Holiday or rocking jerkily side to side like Chuck E. Cheese. In short, she's a child. The question is if this musical has any genuine interest in one.