Will Gluck’s modern Annie updates the story to the streets of Harlem where the eroine is living in a foster home and looking for the parents that abandoned her as a child. A chance encounter with wealthy businessman and mayoral candidate, Will Stacks (Jamie Foxx), transports Annie to a world of wealth and privilege when Stacks fosters Annie to soften his public image and increase his chances of being elected. Predictably, antics ensue and Stacks’ cold heart is eventually warmed by his relationship with Annie.
The latest production of Annie courted controversy last year when it was first announced that Quvenzhané Wallis, an African American actress, would be cast in the leading role – which had in the 1983 and 1999 versions been played by white actresses. Naysayers needn’t have troubled themselves – it is actually Wallis’ streetwise, charming performance that breathes spirit and some semblance of edge into otherwise saccharine, sentimental source material. In essence, this is a re-boot not a re-make, which means that it feels refreshing and relevant to a modern audience. The original 1920s orphanage is exchanged for the run-down foster care system in contemporary New York, Depression-era politics are exchanged for cynical media manipulation and political scheming and songs about the New Deal and president Hoover have been dispensed with for bubbly pop treatments of It’s a Hard-Knock life and Tomorrow. While in the original story Annie is taken in by industrialist Oliver Warbuck, she is now rescued Jamie Foxx’s slick political climber and mobile phone magnate Will Stacks – all these touches nod to the original material while adding character and humour.
Nonetheless there are a still some bum notes. Cameron Diaz puts in a hammy performance as drunken orphanage supervisor Miss Hannigan, that at times borders on pantomime. Also while not entirely sickly sweet, the direction is often lighter and brighter than Wallis’ nuanced, mature performance deserves. Critics clinging to earlier productions and bemoaning casting choices miss the point, what Annie really needed was more bite, not a different leading lady. For instance, it would have been interesting to see Gluck pull back the rose-tinted glasses to create a darker, more hard-nosed world befitting such an intrepid modern heroine. Likewise Gluck seems to shy away from the film’s more poignant moments. The moment Annie reveals that she never learned to read, or the scene in which she is falsely told that Will Stacks sold her to actors pretending to be her parents, are both potentially heartbreaking but are glossed over too quickly to have any real meaning. Annie has a fun, fizzing feel-good factor but, unfortunately, little in the way of lasting resonance.