The greatest insult I can level at Will Gluck’s remake of Annie is that it turns the saccharine, impudent 1982 Annie I grew up on into a veritable classic. That earlier film, which is hideously cloying – apart from the acerbic brilliance of Carol Burnett as booze-swilling, nightgown-wrapped nightmare Miss Hannigan – feels like a masterpiece in comparison to its 2014 update. (In between these two there was also a 1999 version, which is memorable enough to warrant only this small mention.)
Gluck’s film is an untenable hot mess. When I saw it in a screening with my cousin’s children, I worried I might be out of place. Had I yet reached that period, between childhood and parenthood, where films aimed at kids would go over my head?
Then, in one of our first encounters with Jamie Foxx’s Will Stacks (the film’s blowhard 21st century Daddy Warbucks), Stacks is serving food to the homeless in Harlem when he is ordered to try a plate of mashed potatoes for a photo op. The mash is apparently so bad that Stacks, in one of the film’s many spit-take gags, expectorates the starchy goo all over the man he is serving. This, I was given to understand, is a good joke for a kids movie. Forgive me if I find little humour in a billionaire tech magnate spitting on a homeless person before a crowd of clicking cameras.
To my surprise (and pleasure), many in the cinema appeared to agree with me. A few parents and their kiddies tittered – some more appreciatively than others – but without the verve to which they responded later, when the delightful Quvenzhané Wallis as Annie, brandishing an orange, jokes, “Orange you glad I’m back?” That joke, old as the hills and not particularly funny when it was fresh, got a better response than what Gluck and his team presumed passes as original family friendly humour (i.e. Armani-clad Jamie Foxx spitting on downtrodden people, then squeezing Purell on his tongue).
Gluck’s embattled Annie, released in time for Christmas, is now suffering from multiple critical wounds. But worse than the accusations of tonelessness and soullessness is the discovery that Gluck and his team suffered from the very affliction I feared: that is, an inability to understand what might entertain children.
This new Annie is a spectacular misfire. It has its moments, enough to stop kids from fidgeting too much in a dark theatre, and to occasionally stir my heartstrings, but it also has no idea what it is or who it’s for. The choice of Gluck for director – he who helmed the excellent Emma Stone vehicle Easy A, and the diverting sex comedy Friends with Benefits – is baffling. Watching Annie, one genuinely wonders whether Gluck knew that he was directing a movie musical for kids, and not … something else.
And here we get to the heart of the film’s failure, a cautionary tale for all future filmmakers: when exploiting nostalgia for a price tag, tread carefully. Hollywood is flush with reboots and remakes – not just of considered ‘classics’ but also some more esoteric resurrection gambles. To my mind there are two types of reboots: those that merely recycle a popular or successful idea to produce an easy, cash-grabbing result; and those that name-check the past to provide a generally self-reflexive but ultimately original perspective for the present.
The 2011 Footloose redux, for example, belongs in the first camp. It is a worthless, impotent carbon copy of the original, unaltered down to its identical songs, frames and lines of insipid dialogue. When one considers how dull and implausible the original Footloose actually is – despite Kevin Bacon’s electrifying charisma – it’s hard to imagine why such a faithful remake was even considered, let alone completed and foisted on us.
The 2012 film 21 Jump Street, which borrows the premise and little else from its self-satisfied television predecessor, is firmly in the second camp. It’s a fun and flubby take-down of/homage to the buddy cop movie, and the teen movie, and the gross-out comedy. It’s not really trying to be Fox TV’s Johnny Depp vehicle, and thank goodness for that. Instead, it’s sort of Hot Fuzz meets Never Been Kissed, by way of Judd Apatow. (The film’s sequel, 22 Jump Street, is an even more meta-reflection on the state of modern cinema, a caustic and knowing send-up that gleefully acknowledges its own part in the horror it’s exposing.)
And here we get to the heart of the film’s failure, a cautionary tale for all future filmmakers: when exploiting nostalgia for a price tag, tread carefully.
In both cases, studios no doubt relied on the softheaded nostalgia cinemagoers are proven to be susceptible to when we find something we recognise. That wistfulness can prise open a wallet like nothing else. Consider, for example, how director Alejandro González Iñárritu has cleverly exploited a fondness for Michael Keaton’s Batman in his new film Birdman; or how James Gunn and the team at Marvel used the 1980s to stonewash their shiny (and odd) space cowboy gamble, Guardians of the Galaxy, and draw in some sceptical Gen X-ers. No matter how stirring or successful these reboots may be, they are all putting old ideas through the ringer to reap as much profit-laced nostalgia as possible.
Annie, woefully, sits somewhere in between these two reboot camps. It’s a bumbling Frankenstein’s Monster that attempts to cash in on the capital of its beloved source material, a kid-friendly movie musical with surface-level sweetness, while also striving to mire the genre movie musical, the kid-friendly film and the sweetness of wish fulfilment. It cannot be both worshipping and satirical, and so it fails miserably in all regards.
The saddest part is that the idea of updating 1930s-set Annie for now is a good one. Despite the public’s initial (depressingly predictable) negativity towards an African-American Annie replacing that ginger moppet, it’s both refreshing and significant to see a young role model of colour in a blockbuster kids film. Aside from that, there are a few truly great moments – including a rhythmic ‘It’s the Hard-Knock Life’ that shows Jay-Z’s value as an insightful movie music producer.
To some less great moments: a toxically unfunny Cameron Diaz plays Miss Hannigan with absolutely zero grace or insight. Her performance is certainly one of the worst aspects of the film, and the sound of her stumbling through ‘Little Girls’ is tantamount to Diaz setting Carol Burnett on fire and recording the resulting screeches. The usually delightful Rose Byrne bops awkwardly and shakes many a metaphorical finger as Stacks’s uptight Girl Friday, Grace: you can practically see the discomfort leaking from her pores as she tries to erase the memories of her involvement in this technicolour nightmare.
Although there’s promise peeking through, I’m absolutely certain that no one could’ve been less suited to the task of updating this story than Gluck. His work has always had an edge of cynicism, and it’s prickly and delightful when he’s taking down the ’80s teen epic or the cliché of the rom-com. However, in Annie, his obvious disdain for the musical form, his distinct lack of musicality and his apparent distaste for children is a smear of nastiness over the already gaudy and pandering commercialism.
Every song is awkwardly ‘contextualised’ into the film’s action, no doubt to make it seem as though bursting into song is somehow realistic. Similar changes were made to the recent Into The Woods film, and I wish directors would stop assuming we need some sort of plausible context for singing in a musical.
The spirit of the original story, its moxie – ingratiating as glucose-dripped wish fulfilment might be to some – has all but vanished. Gluck has missed the human joy of the original, preferring instead to construct an uncomfortable ode to fame, fortune and capitalism, epitomised by the line, sung by one of Annie’s foster kid companions, “Save your dreams for good stuff, like shopping with an unlimited credit card”. The hardy-har-har running joke about Will Stacks’s begging company slogan, ‘Never drop a call’, is undermined when Stacks reveals that his telecommunications company is successful because it had the foresight to hide cell towers in New York’s significant monuments. The final chase scene, where Annie is rescued from a kidnapping when kids post photos of her capture on Twitter and Instagram, was underscored in my screening by the whispers of parents who sneered, “Social media saved Annie!”
We are a more discerning audience, I think – not so easily fooled. Gluck’s Annie looks and sounds like undercooked, over-hyped garbage, and that’s generally how it’s been received. Perhaps future filmmakers will think twice about why they’re dredging up the past to be reanimated for the present, lest they become the cartoon caricature that wears dollar signs over its eyes.
Matilda Dixon-Smith is a writer, editor and feminist from Melbourne. You can find her work in the Herald Sun, Overland, Kill Your Darlings and on her blog, Fantasise or Perish.