From as far back as the 1920s, the plucky little orphan Annie has been the subject of a popular long-running comic strip created by Harold Gray, a successful 1977 Broadway musical that continues to tour nearly four decades later, and a much-loved 1982 big-screen adaptation directed by John Huston. When a modernized remake was announcedone that would be produced by Will Smith, Jada Pinkett Smith and Jay-Zit was both alarming and all too easy to imagine the countless ways the project could go wrong. Would the new movie bastardize the original story or turn the score into a tone-deaf, faux-hip shadow of its former self? Indeed, there will be purists who claim the new "Annie" does exactly this, unable to entertain the thought that the now somewhat dated material might do well with a little freshening up. From this viewer's perspective, however, director Will Gluck (2010's "Easy A
") and screenwriter Aline Brosh McKenna (2011's "We Bought a Zoo
") have done just about everything right, holding deserved reverence for the original musical while putting a vibrantly inspired, unmistakably contemporary spin on it. The soul of who Annie is and what "Annie" has always been is still very much in abundance.
It's a hard-knock life for 10-year-old Annie Bennett (Quvenzhané Wallis), who resides with her fellow foster siblings in the ratty Harlem apartment of boozy curmudgeon Colleen Hannigan (Cameron Diaz). Returning every Friday to the Italian restaurant where she was abandoned at the age of four, Annie hopes that she will one day be reunited with her long-lost parents. A stroke of serendipitous good fortune arrives when she tumbles into the street one day and is saved from an oncoming car by none other than Will Stacks (Jamie Foxx), a billionaire cell phone mogul and hopeful mayoral candidate. Will is a workaholic who doesn't know the first thing about connecting to the everyday public, but his adviser, Guy (Bobby Cannavale), sees Annie as his chance at redemption. An awkward photo-op lunch turns into something more when Will is manipulated into agreeing to let the young girl come live with him in his fancy Manhattan penthouse. Suddenly open to a whole host of opportunities she never thought she'd have, Annie slowly but surely warms her way into Will's chilly heart. Unbeknownst to either of them, a dastardly plan has formulated between Guy and Miss Hannigan to cast actors as Annie's real parents for a publicity stunt that could guarantee Will's bid for office and Guy a fat bonus.
In terms of its plotting, "Annie" has always been a fairly standard rags-to-riches tale, one where a tough but tender orphan finds a shot at happiness with an unlikely parental figure who happens to be her perfect match. It is enjoyable and sweet and, in the ruse to fool Annie and Daddy Warbucks/Will Stacks about the little girl's parents, a smidgen nefarious, but the darkness parts just in time for the sun to come out once more. In transplanting the setting from the Depression-era 1930s to 2014, Gluck and McKenna have done away with the war themes of the earlier period and altered or combined certain supporting characters (gone are Miss Hannigan's criminal brother Rooster and his dizzy dame Lily), but otherwise kept true to the general thrust of the narrative. The new, hyper-modern "Annie" could never replace the '82 one starring Aileen Quinn, Albert Finney and Carol Burnettit was a childhood favorite of minebut one could see how it might win over today's younger audience members in quite the same way.
The true star is the unexpected, instantly hummable, all-around dynamite music arrangement by musician Sia and composer Greg Kurstin, who have taken songs well-known to the Broadway lexicon and revitalized them. Some are reasonably straight-forward and faithful, with the hopeful ballad "Maybe" still occurring between the girls at the orphanage/foster home and "It's the Hard-Knock Life" soaring as they take to cleaning Miss Hannigan's filthy abode. The most popular song, "Tomorrow," finds a dynamic new avenue to go down, sung as Annie's wished-for family appear in the reflections she passes on the city street. Once the first act is over and Annie arrives at Will's state-of-the-art high-rise penthouse, the score grows ever more adventurous. Easily one of the movie's musical highlights is "I Think I'm Gonna Like It Here," a dazzling duet between Annie and Will's tireless assistant, Grace (Rose Byrne), reimagined as an impossibly catchy, up-tempo, '80s-inspired pop anthem that finds them literally dancing on the roof of a Manhattan skyscraper. Miss Hannigan's big solo, "Little Girls," gives an added urgency and playfulness to the desperation she feels over her lot in life. Additionally, Sia and Kurstin co-wrote three original songs that, lo and behold, are every bit as memorable as the tried-and-true mainstays.
In her first lead role since her Oscar-nominated debut turn in 2012's "Beasts of the Southern Wild
," Quvenzhané Wallis sells the plucky gusto and underlying vulnerability of the title heroine. Wallis' interplay with Jamie Foxx (2014's "Horrible Bosses 2
"), as Will, and Rose Byrne (2014's "This Is Where I Leave You
"), as Grace, feels authentic and harmonious, while her performance of original tune "Opportunity" is truly lovely. Foxx, arguably the most polished singer of the ensemble, is excellent during "The City's Yours," as he and Annie sightsee as they fly over NYC. For her part, Byrne is a joy as the devoted Grace, whose friendship with Annie proves to be the most special one she's ever had. Working better as business colleagues than eventual romantic partners, Byrne and Foxx have a little bit less chemistry between them than Wallis shares with all of the above, but their relationship serves its purpose all the same. The most divisive performance is certain to be the one delivered by a game Cameron Diaz (2014's "The Other Woman
"), who is overly nasty and shrill in her early scenes before settling into a rather affecting arc that brings sympathetic shades to Miss Hannigan. If Diaz is arguably miscast, she earns her place among the ensemble by giving Colleen fascinating added layers and more overt wants and dreams (she is haunted by an aspiring music career that saw her kicked out of C+C Music Factory and losing a spot as one of Hootie's blowfish). Performing the late song "Who Am I?" alongside Foxx and Wallis, Diaz is especially touching.
"Annie" is a splendid entertainment, full of heart and toe-tapping bliss without becoming goopy and cloying. There are imperfectionsnaming dog Sandy after a hurricane is a true head-scratcher, and the reliance on sleek, shiny technology of the moment could threaten its timeliness a decade or more from nowbut the exuberance director Will Gluck conjures in front of the camera is worthy of accolades. The cast is spirited across the board, and this extends to scene-stealing supporting players David Zayas (2010's "Skyline
"), whose convenience store clerk Lou sees the good person through Colleen's mean-spirited exterior, and Stephanie Kurtzuba (2013's "The Wolf of Wall Street
"), hilarious as over-excited family services worker Mrs. Kovacevic. Even if this particular here-and-now "Annie" does not age as impeccably as the period piece in which it has typically been staged in the past, the messages of hope and redemption it imparts will remain timeless. As for the thoroughly energetic soundtrack, well, once heard there will be no chance of forgetting it.