If there has to be a new Annie, this is the way to do it. Charles Strouse, Martin Charnin, and Thomas Meehan’s familiar musical about a little red-haired orphan girl in Depression-era New York has been cleverly modernized, made cheerily diverse and relentlessly upbeat. It rescues her from the cornball dustbins of community theater and John Huston’s lumbering, intermittently charming, 1982 adaptation, making her relevant and fresh. It opens in a schoolroom with a close-up of a red-haired moppet giving a report in front of the class. She eagerly takes her seat as the teacher says, “Thanks, Annie. Now, Annie B? It’s your turn.” Up pops Quvenzhané Wallis, the captivating child actor Oscar-nominated for Beasts of the Southern Wild a couple years ago. She’s beaming, ready to take the center of attention. It’s a new Annie for a new Annie, a welcome sight to start the remake.
This Annie’s an optimistic foster kid living with a group of girls with their foster mother Miss Hannigan (Cameron Diaz). The woman’s a bitter drunk, collecting foster parent money to help her pay the bills. The kids are miserable but upbeat, singing, cleaning, and dreaming of adoption. Annie doesn't want to be adopted. She wants to find her parents. One day she lucks – well, literally bumps – into the good graces of Will Stacks, an antisocial billionaire cell phone mogul (Jamie Foxx). He’s running a floundering mayoral race, and his team (a fussy Rose Byrne and slimy Bobby Cannavale) thinks good deeds will help raise his poll numbers. He was caught saving this poor girl from an oncoming vehicle, and the public loved it. The video went viral. So he decides to take in Annie for a while, without realizing that such a bright light is bound to melt a grump’s heart.
That’s more or less Annie like you know it, but writer-director Will Gluck, with co-writer Aline Brosh McKenna, streamlines the plot, letting the precocious long-winded period piece of yore lose some stuffiness by trimming most of the bloat. Gluck keeps the core of sentimentality, but puts a contemporary gloss on top. Now the plot is fast-paced good-natured comedy and uplift, slickness and auto-tuned cheer, trading a mansion for a luxury penthouse apartment, and updated with tweets, cell towers, and selfies. That sounds like it should be only craven and commercial, but it’s wrapped up in the sweetness inherent in the source material. It works as a brightly lit fantasy New York City for a girl’s dreams to come true just because she’s nice, smart, and deserves it. It’s all high-energy good-spirited smiles and songs. And when I think of the girls around the world who will look at this Annie and see themselves, it makes me pick up my chin and grin.
It helps that Wallis is the most adorable and sympathetic Annie I’ve ever seen. This Annie sings well, has a great smile, and has greater agency over her own narrative. She’s not just hoping. She’s taking action. She sees the angles that get her into a rich situation, and in the climax engineers her own rescue with savvy exploitation of social media. You want her to do well, and the soft edges kept on the plot’s hard edges of abandonment, plus the cultural memory of the play’s songbook, have you knowing she will be okay. It’s bright, light, cheerful, and sweet, determined to see every character redeemed if possible, even when Hannigan gets up to her scheming ways. The movie cares about its characters, and reluctantly doles out a few comeuppances in the end on its way to a happy production number finale.
Gluck, who, if you recall, included a terrific musical number for Emma Stone in his should-be-a-cult-classic teen comedy Easy A, shows a knack for feather-light family-friendly musical filmmaking. He keeps the proceedings bouncy and pleasant. Not all the comedy works – too many pop culture references and clumsy innuendos – but he has a sparkling fizz to the artificial sugar of it all. The game cast – Bryne and Foxx are especially likable, Cannavale’s Broadway-big, and Diaz tries hard – helps keep the good feelings flowing. It looks like they've having fun together. When it comes to the musical numbers, Gluck cuts around imprecise framing in rhythmic editing that matches the mood, skipping around the sequences in the usual modern style that gives off the impression of dancing instead of letting us take in the choreography. But the performers’ spirited charm sells the genial toe-tapping effort.
This remake retains the best of the original’s songs – “Maybe,” “Hard Knock Life,” “Easy Street,” and of course “Tomorrow” – spruces up a few dustier ones – “I Think I’m Gonna Like It Here” gets a new beat, “Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile” gets a new style – drops some of the duller numbers and adds a few dull new ones. But it also gives Annie a new yearning number, “Opportunity,” she sings at a fundraiser she attends with her new temporary foster dad. Here she gives thanks for her bit of luck and promises to make the most of it. It reaffirms this new Annie’s focus on the girl herself, letting her do more than wait optimistically for another day. She’s smart and motivated enough to make the best of her luck to create her own tomorrow. She knows the world can be a mean place, that help doesn't always come to those in her situation, but chooses to face the day with a smile anyway. This movie, all heart, sugar, and uncomplicatedly slick music, has brought new life and new faces to an old-fashioned story, and can bring a smile if you let it.