Perhaps the most surprising shot of the new film version of the classic musical Annie is the first one: a cute, curly-haired redhead charms her way through a presentation on William Henry Harrison, the ninth president of the United States. She buttons her lecture with a short tap dance, thus securing her teacher's approval and her classmates' eye-rolls.
And who is this cute, slightly obnoxious tap dancing redhead? Why, her name, of course, is Annie.
"Good job, Annie," says the teacher. "OK, Annie B., your turn."
The camera cuts to Annie Bennett, played by the delightful Quvenzhané Wallis. She doesn't want to get up in front of the class and perform.
But in the end, she reluctantly makes her way to the front of the classroom to give her presentation — "it's more of a performance piece," she tells her teacher — on Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
In that line lies one way to look at the film. It's more of a performance piece, but it's also kind of something else.
1) Annie v. Annie
Annie B.'s piece is quite different from her predecessor's. B's piece is fun. Engaging. Hard-knock — literally. At once, B has the entire classroom participating in her show, assigning different hand and feet rhythms for them to perform. Stomp stompstomp, they pound, as B tells them about life in 1932, which, as she describes it, sounds incredibly similar to life in 2014.
The bell rings, B looks to her teacher and smiles, and he congratulates her. "Good job, Annie," he says, this time, however, leaving off the B, the letter that differentiated her from her classmate of the same name. The message is clear: Wallis is no longer Annie B. — she's Annie.
Obviously the "B" stands for Annie's last name, Bennett. But you can't but wonder if something else is going on here.
For the opening scene of his 2014 Annie, director Will Gluck decided that what was most appropriate was to stage a kind of battle between two Annies. It was the Annie we know from previous versions of this story versus a brand-new Annie. It was time-step Annie versus step squad Annie.
This kind of racial diversity in a classic story could be welcome, and there's a rich tradition of kids stories looking at complex, adult issues through a young person's lens. But Gluck has to underline and highlight exactly what he's doing, via the very literal battle between two different Annies, rather than letting the story simply be.
There's a clever idea here — the Annie we knew, the one from 1932, doesn't have to be all that different from one from 2014 — but it gets lost in Gluck's tendency to overemphasize points that are already obvious to anyone watching. Everyone involved in the film is giving themselves too much credit for something that probably doesn't deserve such heavy-handed back-patting.
And because this was the first scene of the movie, it had a creepy way of framing the entire story. This is an update of Annie that tries so hard at every turn to remind us we're watching an updated version that it occasionally seems embarrassed to be based on the musical Annie at all.
2) Unfortunate casting choices
Part of that updating, unfortunately, involves the casting, which is all over the map.
Let's start with what works. Wallis is fantastic. Already Oscar-nominated for her work in Beasts of the Southern Wild, her amazing performance in Annie will hopefully launch her to many well-deserved roles. Though she's not really a singer, per se, as David Edelstein points out at Vulture, the film's several body percussion moments make clear she has a natural gift for rhythm, though we don't really know if she can actually dance.
Byrne, incidentally, is also wonderful as Grace. But, then, the actress usually is. She finds ways to capture a laughs in the most minor movement of her face. She also deserves praise for finding a way to bring Grace into 2014 without stripping her of any of her throwback elegance.
It's the rest of the cast where the problems lie. Jamie Foxx is a wonderful, engaging actor, but this might not have been the role for him. His natural charm actually works against him. Will Stacks (this version's spin on Daddy Warbucks) needs to be appropriately standoffish, but the moments he needs to seem genuinely put off by Annie come across, instead, as playful — as if he and his young co-star were just being sarcastic with each other.
But whereas Foxx and Byrne are at least fun to watch and genuinely capable of pulling off at least some version of the characters they're updating, Cameron Diaz and Bobby Cannavale are out of place. The problem with Cannavale might have been how the role was written. His character, a dirty political advisor to Stacks, is a strange addition to the script, particularly since Rooster, the character from the original Annie that this new one replaces, would have been a great fit for Cannavale's talents.
As for Diaz, in the iconic Ms. Hannigan role: WHY? It's hard to know what anyone was thinking here. What Diaz does here is reminiscent of karaoke. That doesn't mean she's phoning it in. Rather, she's doing her best Ms. Hannigan impression, instead of finding her own spin on the character. She doesn't so much perform a character as act out adjectives: mean, belligerent, drunk, grumpy.
These actors were stuck into the movie as an insurance policy, it would seem, in case audiences didn't warm to Wallis. But this version switches their characters (save Ms. Hannigan, oddly) around in ways that rarely work. Those forced updates rear their head again.
3) The film feels just so damn forced
The pointless updating extends to the film's music. There's nothing wrong with reworking the score of Annie - as this film does - but too often, the movie seems a little embarrassed to be a musical at all, making it seem as if it's having a crisis of confidence. For instance, every time a song was updated by synth drums or auto-tune, it's not hard to think that the director wants the audience to know that this version is cooler and better than the classic they're used to.
Most of the updates - to the story, as well as the music - don't seem honest. Sure, some are authentic to Annie's contemporary world. It makes sense that Stacks would track Annie's location at the end of the film with help from social media, and updating Annie's back-story so she's in foster care, rather than an orphanage, is also thoughtful.
But many changes here — the mashups of classic Annie songs and Australian pop, the decision to replace all the dancing with choreographed Moving From Here To There — were awkward to sit through, because they just mostly seem like desperate attempts to make a deliberately uncool musical cool. (C'mon. Annie is based on a comic strip from the '30s. It's the opposite of hip.) Even when the new songs were welcome in the moment or the scene — like Sia's beautiful "Who Am I?" — they still felt out of place in the overall picture.
All musical remakes will inevitably be faced with the question of how they compare with their source material. That is usually a productive question to ask. Times change, and stories need to be able to shift along with them.
And there are the seeds of a good idea here, especially with Wallis in the title role. As Imran Siddiquee points out in a great piece at The Atlantic, just having Wallis playing this role is a wonderful idea. People of color continue to be underrepresented in Hollywood, and casting Wallis in a role previously best known for bright red curls is a welcome suggestion that somebody somewhere in show business is getting the message about diversity.
And that diversity is one of the things the film does incredibly well! The love story between Stacks and Grace was wonderful to see, and there's real power in the kiss they share at the end of the film. Creating art that represents our diverse planet is absolutely necessary, and it's refreshing to see that reflected in a children's film.
But making art and forcing art are different things. And notwithstanding its many positive takeaways, the new Annie is forced at every turn, desperate to please a modern audience while losing sight of how the boldest update — and maybe the only update needed here — was the girl in the title role. She doesn't need to be Annie "B." She can be Annie, full stop.