Opens Fri., Dec. 19 at Meridian and other theaters. Rated PG. 119 minutes.
Musical-theater purists can be almost as fussy as Star Wars fanatics, so expect a certain amount of kvetching over the new adaptation of Annie (previously filmed in ’82). The beloved 1977 Broadway show gets a thorough reworking, with rewritten lyrics, funked-up music, and a time-shift to the present day. (The comic-inspired original was a Depression-era fable, complete with cameo by Franklin Roosevelt.) Though it’s going to get lambasted, this new Annie is actually kind of fun on its own terms, with a rapid-fire pace and actors who aren’t afraid to be silly.
The role of Annie usually goes to girls who sound as though they’ve swallowed Ethel Merman’s trumpet, but here the part is played by soft-voiced Quvenzhané Wallis, the kid from Beasts of the Southern Wild. Annie’s no longer a little orphan, but a foster child, raised in a Harlem group home by the booze-swilling Miss Hannigan (Cameron Diaz). The campaign managers (Rose Byrne and Bobby Cannavale) of a billionaire mayoral candidate named Will Stacks (Jamie Foxx, in good form) determine that this child would look great in pictures with their guy. So Annie becomes the ward of the workaholic tycoon, and you know where it goes from there. The storyline has been changed and some songs and characters trimmed, but we still hear the plaintive throb of “Tomorrow” and the kicky fun of “It’s the Hard Knock Life.” They’re just . . . rearranged a little. (The film’s producers include Jay-Z, who made a memorably weird hip-hop mashup out of “Hard Knock Life” some years ago.)
The movie gets messier as it goes, but the actors are peppy and a sense of goodwill pervades—even mean Miss Hannigan is revealed to be misunderstood. Director and co-screenwriter Will Gluck showed his antic talents in Easy A and Fired Up, and he keeps this film popping along with in-jokes and non sequiturs. He doesn’t display a particular gift for musical numbers, but then neither did John Huston in the odd 1982 movie adaptation. Gluck’s comic touch also keeps this film a little too zany to nail the Broadway show’s bet-your-bottom-dollar sentimentality, so the purists will have a point there. On the other hand, you’d really have to go out of your way to complain that the show’s two biggest roles have been given to black actors—but if you check the comments sections of online references to the film, you’ll find plenty of people going out of their way. Sigh. Tomorrow is only a day away, right?