From Stage to Screen: Annie (2014)
Let me get this out of the way right off the bat: I am not Annie’s biggest fan. I don’t care for the original show, and I don’t care for the 1982 movie version. But while I don’t like it much, I get why other people do. It’s a cheerful, optimistic show about a cute kid finding her own happy ending. It’s a Cinderella story, and people love Cinderella stories. The songs are catchy and fun and have become pretty iconic – does anyone not know “Tomorow”? So let’s look at how the 2014 version starring Quvenzhané Wallis, Jamie Foxx, and Cameron Diaz is likely to appeal to those who do love the show.
What’s the Story?
I’ll try to remain relative spoiler-free throughout the rest of this article, but for those of you who don’t care, here’s the basic storyline from beginning to end. The central story of Annie remains the same between the show, the 1982 film, and the 2014 film. Our title character is an 11-year-old whose parents abandoned her as a baby, and now she and several other young girls live with the cruel child-hating Miss Hannigan. She ends up in the temporary care of a billionaire who grows to love her, and he even thinks about adopting her, only for her parents to suddenly reappear. Except they aren’t really her parents – they’re imposters who have been fed Annie’s information by Miss Hannigan so they can take Annie away and make Miss Hannigan rich. (The way this works varies from story to story.) In the end, of course, the parents are revealed, the billionaire offers to adopt Annie, and everybody sings about it.
What Was Different in the Movie?
The 2014 film changed a lot about the original, so let’s focus on plot in this section. We’ve got time to talk about the music later. The original show was firmly entrenched in its setting: the year 1933 during the Great Depression. Annie’s most famous song, “Tomorrow,” was even sung to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt himself. There are also several songs about the political atmosphere, including a bitter crowd of homeless people sarcastically singing “We’d Like to Thank You, Herbert Hoover” and FDR’s political fix front and center with a finale of “New Deal for Christmas.”
The 1982 movie kept the 1930s setting more as a casual backdrop and cut the political songs, focusing the story on Annie and her billionaire adoptive father. The 2014 movie abandons that decade altogether and transports Annie to current-day New York City, where she is an African-American girl caught in the foster care system instead of a redheaded orphan. The show’s Daddy Warbucks has become cell phone carrier mogul Will Stacks, who is running for mayor. The primary antagonist is not Miss Hannigan, but a conniving political adviser who manipulates Stacks and Annie every step of the way and hires people to pretend to be her parents. In fact, Hannigan herself has a change of heart in the late stages of the movie. She mostly comes across as tragic and sympathetic, rather than either funny or villainous as she is typically played.
Modernizing the story of Annie makes a lot of sense. It’s less popular in film remakes, but this happens in theater all the time. It’s not uncommon for productions of older shows to be reimagined with songs added in, dialogue tweaked, and an entirely new concept for the set and costumes. In this case, the instinct to modernize was a good one, if for no reason than to bring some of the political aspects of the original show back into play. The movie attempts to touch on current issues like the foster system, the superficiality of the media, poverty, and childhood illiteracy.
The decision to cast Wallis as Annie, instead of a redhead as most know the character, is an interesting choice. It’s also an excellent one. While fans of the original complained that it messed with tradition, there’s some fascinating history behind this. Little Orphan Annie’s red hair first debuted in the comic strip in 1924, when red hair was associated with the Irish (who were far from popular in America at the time) and therefore considered undesirable. It’s been argued that giving Annie red hair deliberately marginalized her and made her vulnerable in a way that modern readers don’t see. With this casting, the movie attempts to make similar subtle comments about race as the original comic strip may have been making about Irish immigrants.
This updated script is actually pretty good. A little goofy, and the addition of the campaign adviser is pretty unnecessary since the story already has a perfectly good antagonist, but the plot changes make sense for the most part and bring some new life into an old story. It hits the right emotional notes, and Wallis and Foxx are both likable in their roles. All in all, this would be a pretty decent updated version of the original musical. Except for one pesky little thing…
How Are the Songs?
It is probably best to say that these songs are inspired by the originals. Three songs remain more or less intact (“Maybe,” “It’s the Hard-Knock Life,” and, of course, “Tomorrow”). The rest take a line or two from the original and then write an entirely new song around them – sometimes both music and lyrics. A few of the originals are almost unrecognizable.
This wouldn’t even be that bad if the songs written around them were as memorable or likable as their predecessors, but no. Instead, the few lyrics they have repeat themselves ad nauseum. “I Think I’m Gonna Like It Here” is the worst culprit of the bunch, with what used to be a complete, articulate song reduced to the following chorus repeated umpteen times:
Yes, yes, I think I’m gonna like it here
Yes, yes, I think I’m gonna like it here
I think I’m gonna like it here
I think I’m gonna like it here
Classic villainess song “Little Girls” is similarly truncated. There are two lines from the original song, a bizarre rock chorus about wanting to be a star, and then the entire song just repeats. If they needed the song to be longer, surely they could have, say, looked at the original song which had all these lyrics already written for them? But instead the song’s barely over 2 minutes, and it appears they couldn’t bother to write more than… half of that. All these numbers (as well as the two brand new ones) reek of having the bare minimum of effort put into them.
There’s one more thing that makes the musical numbers here a mess, and that’s the autotune. There is no missing this autotune or pretending like it’s not there. It’s running the show more than the singers themselves are, to the point where it’s impossible to evaluate any of the musical performances. They could be barely singing at all and it would sound just as good as it does here. It doesn’t sound good at all, making this an ugly, repetitive, tuneless soundtrack.
Frankly, with this plan for the music, this movie would’ve been better off scrapping all the songs together and doing a non-musical version of the story. As it stands, the songs are terrible, sure to disappoint Annie lovers and haters alike. It’s unfortunate when a musical ruins the one thing it needs to do well.
How Do They Compare Overall?
Show: Hypothetically ranking the original show, it lands at #1173 out of 2350 on my chart. I don’t think it’s a particularly good show, but it has its charms and if you like stories where kids dance and sing their way into people’s hearts, you’ll probably love it.
Movie: The global charts place this at #47019, though only 71 people have ranked it at all. It lands at a similarly unimpressive #1670 on my chart. If I was ranking it solely on music, it’d fall much further, but the script had a lot of potential and the choices they made in modernizing it worked. If only they had held back a little on modernizing the music.
I Liked This. What Else Should I Watch?
This is the first musical movie outing for many of these stars, but you can catch Jamie Foxx in Dreamgirls and Ray, and Annie’s fake mom is Tracie Thoms, who doesn’t sing here but does get to sing in Rent.