I was nine years old in 1982 when the original film adaptation of Annie came out. For girls my age, this was our Frozen. We bought the books, the toys, and the cassette tapes. We drove our parents insane shout-singing “Hard-Knock Life” and “Tomorrow” in the backs of station wagons. No one owned VCRs yet – they were ridiculously expensive and roughly the size of a Datsun B210 – so we waited many months to finally see the movie again when it was released on Pay TV. Betamax? No—the one family that owned a Betamax was unceremoniously shunned.
Sorry for my little nostalgic digression. I hope you were able to follow along despite my ancient technological references. I also hope that a few years from now, when the graphics you designed for the 2014 re-imagining of Annie are hilariously dated, that the story itself will still hold up.
But I wouldn’t bet my vintage Swatch on it.
This 21st Century Annie is not an orphan, as she reminds us throughout the film. She’s a foster kid. She lives in Harlem with her mean foster mom, Miss Hannigan, and five foster sisters, but continues to hold out hope that her real parents will come back for her someday. Annie is saved from an oncoming car by gruff telecom billionaire Will Stacks, who is lagging behind in the city’s mayoral race. Stacks’ handlers convince him to “foster” Annie to help improve his image with voters. While the arrangement starts out as a publicity stunt, Annie and Stacks eventually realize they’ve found the only family either of them has ever known. Their bond is tested when Annie’s supposed parents reappear.
Technology is a major plot point in Annie. Stacks’ campaign manager and Girl Friday are perpetually scanning websites to assess how their boss is being portrayed online. When a visit to a soup kitchen goes horribly wrong, the moment is re-played on screens large and small, and is even auto-tuned into a pop song on YouTube. Events happen at lightning speed, and you had to design a constant stream of graphics for Twitter, Google and major news sites. Of course, someone manages to film Stacks saving Annie and it “goes viral.”. In Stacks’ penthouse, a never-ending stream information and images is displayed on floor-to-ceiling screens. Annie can change the graphics in her room from unicorns and glitter to puppies and moonbeams. She chooses to sleep under a desk.
I can’t say I blame her.
The 1982 Annie is set in New York City during Prohibition, and the film embraces this era completely. The musical numbers reflect that golden age of Hollywood with Busby Berkeley-esque dance routines and over-the-top orchestration. The sheer number of grinning children, adults, and animals crammed into each scene could have only been managed by a director like John Huston.
The 2014 Annie is contemporary and urban but feels strangely small—and not in an intimate way. Director Will Gluck missed many opportunities to scale up the song and dance sequences, opting to fill the empty spaces with your dizzying graphics (instead of actual people). Or maybe he thought repeating a flash-mob – like the one he staged for Friends With Benefits – was just so 2011.
The updated songs – and even the originals – capture the film’s saccharine tone perfectly. What Quvenzhane Wallis lacks in vocal chops she makes up for with sheer positivity and charm. She’s the perfect choice for Annie. It would seem the entire cast was chosen less for their singing prowess and more for their bankability. Jamie Foxx can sing, but the fact that he sounds a little too much like R. Kelly doesn’t make his relationship with a young girl any less icky. Poor Cameron Diaz has the toughest shoes to fill. Carol Burnett was a force of nature as the original Miss Hannigan (for a master class in drunk singing see her version of “Little Girls”). Unfortunately, Cameron isn’t a good enough singer or comedienne to inject the villainous Miss Hannigan with enough malice or pathos to make her as cartoonishly menacing as she needs be. For some reason her backstory involves being bitter at having been kicked out of C+C Music Factory before their first appearance on Arsenio—two references that aren’t getting any fresher.
None of this is to imply that you didn’t do a good job. On the contrary.Your detail-rich work is an accurate reflection of the ever-connected world we live in. But that world and its technology is evolving daily, and for a tech-heavy film that can be a liability. The best musicals don’t always have the most intricate librettos or the most elaborate art direction, but they do share one important quality: they’re timeless. Annie has some fun and clever moments – especially a scene involving a movie premiere and its product tie-ins – but it’s probably not going to be the kind of repeat-viewing hit that Sony was hoping for.
Sorry, parents of Frozen-addicted kids. You’ll have to wait for a better musical to come along before your kids will finally Let It Go.