The story of Annie, whether it’s in the comics, the stage play, the 1982 adaptation, or Will Gluck‘s new, updated version, requires relentless positivity to combat its cynical message. Annie must devote an entire song to the power of optimism because the story basically celebrates the lottery and the benevolence of the wealthy while also trying to show that love is the most valuable treasure of all. One way to handle that conflict is to put on the biggest smile possible. The other is the route Gluck has gone with his version, which is to be constantly clever, charming, and embracing a modern twist on the character even if it requires new songs that may not be quite as memorable as “Tomorrow” or “Hard-Knock Life”, but still channel the fun and upbeat attitude of the character. Filled with great performances from most of the cast, Annie is a funny, joyous update that keeps the musical’s upbeat attitude intact while still dancing to its own tune.
Foster child Annie Bennett (Quvenzhané Wallis) lives a “hard-knock life” with her friends and fellow foster children under the substandard care from the drunk and surly Ms. Hannigan (Cameron Diaz). Annie dreams of one day being reunited with her parents, who left her on the doorstep of a restaurant when she was a baby. Meanwhile, aloof billionaire Will Stacks (Jamie Foxx) is trying to become mayor of New York City, but the populace finds him unlikable and out of touch. When he saves Annie from being hit by a car and a witness uploads the footage to YouTube, his poll numbers take a big bump. His advisors convince him to temporarily foster Annie in order to boost his popularity, and she agrees to the hustle since she’ll get to live in a magnificent penthouse and have the resources to find her parents. But as the two spend more time together, they begin to forge a deeper bond that starts making Will a better man.
Cynically, Annie is about a poor kid who discovers that the best thing that can happen to anyone is to be adopted by someone rich, and that being wealthy is super-awesome. The trick of Annie is getting the audience to believe that love is more valuable than money because Will is unhappy until Annie and her positive attitude come bounding into his life. You just have to discard the subtext that being adorable and finding the right man is the way to wealth and happiness.
Again, that’s the cynical view, and with Will Gluck’s adaptation, you’d have to work to be that negative about a movie this effervescent. Annie starts off with a wink to the original by having a girl with bright, frizzy red hair give a report on William Harrison before the teacher calls on “Annie B”, who then comes to the front of the class, and then delivers a report on FDR by getting her classmates into an interactive lesson involving beats and rhythm. This sets the stage for Annie to start running through the streets of New York City as little nods to “Tomorrow” tag along after her whether it’s in the form of a street performance or the noise of the city.
Gluck drops these notes throughout the picture as he finds a way to work with the original musical rather than force it into a modern setting. If he can update it with a minor tweak—such as giving Stacks a smart-house as opposed to Daddy Warbucks’ army of servants—then that’s great. But because the story wouldn’t work with a 1-to-1 conversion, Gluck is more than happy to improvise, throw in catchy new songs, and use the original plot as a guide rather than a text that must be followed down to the letter.
That’s a much tougher challenge than sticking to the source material, which would have felt out of place and dated if transported to the present day. Gluck channels the soul of the musical, and it gives the remake a unique personality that still carries the fun of the original. There’s no strain to make this new Annie “hip” and “fresh” because it’s not afraid of the tone of the original. The movie heavily incorporates social media into the plot, but that just makes the story more believable (although among all the tweets, YouTube videos, and Instagrams we see on the screen, I was looking for Slate thinkpieces with headlines like “Should We Use Children as Props in Politics?”) The modern technology in Annie is thoughtfully woven into the story rather than forced upon it.
Weaving in modern technology is a nice twist, but Gluck never forgets the movie’s emotional core, which is about a sad girl who perseveres through her pluck and resourcefulness. “Tomorrow” is the character’s defining song, and Gluck depicts it wonderfully by having Annie singing it as she walks down the street and seeing happy families reflected in surfaces, but then we see that she’s looking at everyday activities. Gluck could have gone a clichéd route by just showing smiling parents and their kids, but he went in an unexpected and rewarding direction by showing that Annie misses her parents so much that she’s willing to see a family life in everything, even mundane tasks performed with inanimate objects. Annie eschews choreography in favor of letting the environment, characters, and sly nods carry the musical.
Wallis proves her tremendous performance in Beasts of the Southern Wild wasn’t a fluke, and she makes us believe that Annie can get Will to be a better person. Foxx proves he’s adept at family comedy, and almost the entire cast fits in nicely to the warm-hearted but rarely saccharine tone. The only outlier is Diaz, who mistakes the film for a cartoon and so she’s constantly mugging for laughs whereas they come naturally to everyone else. To her credit, Diaz does settle more comfortably into the role as Hannigan develops some depth, but her performance early in the film is cringe-worthy, which is a shame when the rest of the movie is such a joy.
I did not expect to like Annie, but I forgot that Gluck is a very smart director who doesn’t force laughs, and finds unexpected ways to tell a story. The new songs are fairly good, the retelling is imaginative, and the film has perhaps the best inside joke I’ve seen since “Welcome to Moose-port” was inscribed on the side of the FLDSMDFR in Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. Annie, both as a remake and as a story, triumphs over cynicism with constant wit and refusing to rest on the familiarity “Tomorrow” and instead choosing to live up to its promise.