‘The worst that might be said about Annie Mark 2 is that it isn’t Frozen, and that’s hardly a crime’ says MacDara Conroy At time of writing, this modern-day reboot of Depression-era musical Annie holds a Rotten Tomatoes rating of just 21 per cent. That places it on a par with this summer’s execrable tornado flick Into the Storm, and lower than Dumb and Dumber To. Quite an achievement. And perusing the reviews published thus far, the invective of the critical onslaught is something to behold. They don’t just dislike it, they outright hate it, as if it singularly symbolises everything wrong with cinema today: sickly sweet schmaltz, crass commercialism, and various other words suffixed by ‘ism’. And all of that heaped upon the simple story – set in a polished, gentrified parallel universe New York – of the eponymous foster child (Quvenzhané Wallis, Beasts of the Southern Wild) who rises from the pavement to the penthouse after a chance encounter with wealthy businessman-cum-politician Will Stacks (Jamie Foxx). Where did it go so wrong?
Beyond the bluster, the critics are right about a lot of it, in fairness. For what’s ostensibly a musical, the singing is almost uniformly terrible, befitting a cast chosen for its familiarity over vocal ability (all bar Foxx, even when he’s half-assing it) or prowess on the dance floor (Rose Byrne, as Stacks’ high-strung assistant Grace, looks exceedingly uncomfortable when she has to bust a move). The ‘big’ numbers are oddly staged, confined to small spaces – a poky flat, a sterile penthouse, and even a four-seater helicopter – when they should be grand, expansive stage-fillers. They also get sparser as the story progresses, the big songs checked off within the first 15 minutes in a film that, at a whopping two hours, needs a good half hour hacked off. Even within all that time, the film fails to properly inhabit the New York setting it trumpets so often (probably because the bulk of it was shot on a backlot in Long Island) or make much use of Annie’s cute puppy co-star Sandy (so supplemental to the story, her few scenes could be cut with no questions asked).
And let’s not ignore the dodgy politics, stretching to defend wide-net digital surveillance (it’s good if it can help a foster kid find her parents, right?) and attack the inefficacy of big-government bureaucracy (politics bad, business good) while toasting the kind of ‘anyone can succeed if you pull your bootstraps hard enough’ nonsense that allows the haves of this world to pillage, and victim-blame, the have-nots with impunity (yes, I can spit as much invective as the rest). That, and it’s pretty clear the whole enterprise is just an excuse to spin a movie out of Jay Z’s ‘Hard Knock Life’.
And yet. And yet! Annie Mark 2 not even half as bad as the critical consensus would have you believe. That’s largely down to the fact that it works on two levels: one squarely aimed at its target audience of tweenage girls, the other pitched way over their heads – but not at their expense – to the parents in the cinema. Gags referencing C+C Music Factory and the ridiculousness of Twilight-style YA adaps (courtesy of a pitch-perfect parody trailer by The Lego Movie’s Phil Lord and Christopher Miller) are harmless nudges and winks that only liven up a film not intended for anyone aged over 12. The politics? The shameless product placement and digital ennui? Just guff to appease the shareholders that kids don’t give two hoots about. The dreadful, flat auto-tuned singing? That’s today’s pop vernacular, innit?
What’s more important is the easy charm that the cast develops throughout, especially when Wallis grows into her role and lets a little smart-arse sass colour that perma-optimist personality. Kids will be knowing enough to get that; the Annie of yesteryear is too clean-cut for the modern youngster. Indeed, from their perspective the worst that might be said about Annie Mark 2 is that it isn’t Frozen, and that’s hardly a crime.