Annie

December 20, 2014
Quvenzhané Wallis in 'Annie' (2014)
Quvenzhané Wallis in 'Annie' (2014)

This time of year the main choices for a critic are between movies for children and movies for childish adults. I’ve yet to see the film about Paddington Bear the Asylum Seeker but I’d recommend going soon before Scott Morrison slaps a ban on it.

That leaves Annie – a film of wasted opportunities. The first word of warning is to keep the airsick bag with you at all times, as Annie’s relentless cuteness may have unhealthy repercussions. Quvenzhané Wallis who was stupendous in Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012), has been transformed – at the age of 10 – into the new Shirley Temple. She’s also been given a lobotomy that makes her acting completely one-dimensional.

The original Little Orphan Annie was a legendary figure in American popular culture. The character first appeared in 1924, in a comic strip by Harold Gray (1894-1968), for whom it became a life-long occupation. Annie was known for her red curly hair, blank eyes, and the expression: “Leapin’ lizards!”

Annie’s benefactor, Daddy Warbucks, was a benign capitalist who developed a strong affection for the orphan girl which was not shared by his social-climbing wife.

In the comic strip, Annie was continually being thrown out of the house by Mrs. Warbucks and brought back by Daddy. One may draw all sorts of Freudian conclusions.

Annie was made into a Broadway musical in 1977, and a film – by John Huston, of all people – in 1982. Huston’s version was based on the stage production, peppered with the sing-a-long numbers from the musical. This new production has tweaked the existing songs and added a few new ones, sacrificing any vestige of charm to relentless beatbox rhythms and lashings of syrup.

The Daddy Warbucks character in this film is Jamie Foxx’s Will Stacks, a self-made mobile phone billionaire who is campaigning – apparently for commercial reasons – to be Mayor of New York City. Like Daddy, Will develops a creepy fascination with 10-year-old Annie, whom he uses as a gimmick to help his election chances. There is, however, no Mrs. Warbucks to disrupt the father-child romance. The only other people in Will’s life are his P.A., Grace (Rose Byrne), and his campaign manager, Guy (Bobby Cannavale). The role of the female villain is taken up by Cameron Diaz, as Annie’s dissolute foster mother, Miss Hannigan.

Even in a so-called “family” film, Cameron Diaz plays the slut – which may be taken as one small check on the saccharine nature of the story. However, Diaz’s most subversive gesture is trying to sing. With the exception of Jamie Foxx, there is nobody in the film who seems to be able to hold a tune.

Annie trades on the child’s fantasy of being able to choose your parents – and what child wouldn’t choose ones who are rich and doting? She is even able to stitch together a nuclear family by bringing Will and Grace together. It’s a neat way of legitimising a relationship that was beginning to seem like a musical version of Lolita.

Although politicians and the media are targets of mild satire, the movie is a celebration of wealth and power showing us that billionaire businessmen are lovely people at heart. This is a far cry from the original Annie, which was a product of the Depression era, characterised by a deep vein of social commentary. The Annie of today, conceived in the shadow of the Global Financial Crisis, has no axe to grind. It is a hymn of praise to luxury lifestyles.

Annie
Directed by Will Gluck
Written by Will Gluck, Aline Brosh McKenna, after a stage play by Thomas Meehan & a comic strip by Harold Gray
Starring Quvenzhané Wallis, Jamie Foxx, Rose Byrne, Cameron Diaz, Bobby Cannavale
USA, rated G, 118 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 20th December, 2014.