Rated PG. Running time: 1 hour 58 min.
Our content ratings: Violence 1; Language 0; Sex/Nudity 1.
Our star rating (1-5): 4
I will give them one heart, and put a new spirit within them; I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh
“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust[consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
As a child our newspaper’s Sunday Funnies was my favorite section, but I seldom read Harold Gray’s “Little Orphan Annie.” When the 1977 Broadway musical was adapted for the screen in 1982 and again in the 1990s, I skipped them. Now we have still another Annie film. There were two reasons I decided to take in the new version—first, I loved the little actress Quvenzhané Wallis in Beasts of the Southern Wild and was curious how she would fare in a musical; and second, I was curious also how the story would play out, transferred from the Depression era to 2014 and the race of two of the main characters changed.
Many critics have panned the new film, but I thoroughly enjoyed what director Will Gluck and his co-writers Will Gluck and Aline Brosh McKenna have come up with. Although the voice of Quvenzhané Wallis singing of “Tomorrow” would scarcely carry up to a stage theater’s balcony, she does well with the other songs, and as an actress she certainly holds her own in scenes with the rest of the excellent cast—the delightful Cameron Diaz as the stuck in the past Ms. Hannigan; Jamie Foxx as the Daddy Warbucks stand-in, billionaire Will Stacks; Rose Byrne as Stack’s loyal personal assistant, Grace; and Bobby Cannavale as the conniving business aide Guy.
In contemporary New York Annie and her friends live in a group foster home, rather than an orphanage. It is managed by Miss Hannigan who makes life rough for her charges because she is embittered by her lost chance to make it big with a singing group. Annie, still in possession of a note written on a restaurant slip by the mother who gave her up, sits on a curb opposite the restaurant on Friday nights in the hope that she will return. When she fails to show up each night, the sympathetic owner gives the waif a box of cannolis to take home. Whenever someone calls her an orphan, Annie replies, “Not an orphan. I’m a foster kid!” And of course, she cheers her despondent friends with ”Tomorrow.”
Will Stacks has grown super rich building his cell phone company and sees running for Mayor as a means to increase his wealth from contacts with government and business leaders. There is not a trace of altruism in him. The public apparently sees this, because in the polls he is way behind his opponent Harold Gray (note the tribute to the strip’s originator). Gray pulls even further ahead when Michael J. Fox endorses him.
As Stacks is walking down a street Annie bumps into him while chasing two boys tormenting a dog. She falls in front of a van, but Stacks pulls her away just in time. He goes on with no further thought of the incident, until he returns to his office and Guy points out that someone has made a video of the rescue and posted it on line where it has gone viral.
Guy, seeing this as a golden opportunity to score political points, tells Stacks that he must find the girl and spend time with her. This leads to inviting her to stay at his sumptuous penthouse, one corner of which could contain the rundown flat into which Miss Hannigan stuffs Annie and her friends. Stacks objects that he does not care for children, but Guy assures him that once the campaign is over, they can dump the girl Grace is troubled by the scheme, but goes along with it. You know, of course, how well that nefarious plan will turn out.
The film adroitly combines two genres, that of a hard-hearted adult softened up by a child (think About a Boy, Kolya, The Kid—2000 version), and that of the character transformation story (On the Waterfront, The Doctor, A Civil Case). In Annie both Miss Hannigan and Will Stacks are badly in need of improvement in their values and morals. It is a bit difficult which of them needs changing the most, although my vote goes for the foster care mom who sees the kids as just the means of obtaining monthly checks from Child Welfare while treating her charges like slaves—after all Annie has already been under her care for some time when the film begins, and the woman has remained impervious to the girl’s charms.
It is no spoiler to reveal that eventually both heels rediscover their humanity, and this inner process is movingly depicted in the song written for this film, one that I much prefer to the overdone “Tomorrow,” “Who Am I?” The music of this is haunting and goes perfectly with the words. As I recall it is Miss Hannigan who begins the song,
“Who am I, what have I become?
Do I stand for something, or for money?
Who am I, where’s my good girl gone?
You know I had a good heart once, you see.”
Then Will Stacks sings his verse, and last of all, Annie joins in. Each of them expresses their own need, the song closing with all three singing:
“ I will trust in it (8x)
But today, I’ve got to make,
The best I can of it.
‘Cause yesterday is dead and gone
And me along with it
I want to start again (spoken and sung)”
There are, of course, many other songs such as the amusing “It’s the Hard-Knock Life;” the one to which Grace and Annie sing as they dance together around Stacks’ lavish penthouse, “I Think I’m Gonna Like It Here;” the Annie-Stacks duet, “I Don’t Need Anything But You,” and others, but none are as insightful and memorable as this new song.
There is more to like in the film, but in order not to make this review even longer, I just want to mention the race-blind casting. Annie and Will Stacks are African American, and Grace is white, the three of them at the end heading to form an interracial family. Looking around the audience when Will and Grace finally kiss, I saw only looks of approval on the faces of the mixed race audience. As one who can remember when African American stars such as Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier were not allowed an on-screen kiss with their white costars, this film reflects some real racial progress in our nation. So, ignore the critics who have panned this family-friendly film. There is much to like in this version. I might even go back some day and watch the earlier ones…Nah, this one s good enough.
For the full lyricsgo to http://www.metrolyrics.com/who-am-i-lyrics-annie.html
This review, with a set of discussion questions, will be in the January 2015 issue of Visual Parables.