Wallis, Jamie, Jay Z lift 'Annie'
"Annie," a musical that the decades have rendered into a punchline, is modernized, made more streetwise and brought back to life in a production backed by Jay Z and various members of the Will and Jada Pinkett Smith empire.
The new "Annie" is intimate and hip, sarcastic and flip. It opens by mocking the cliched redheaded cheerfulness of the Depression Era comic strip, and proceeds to give the little orphan — "Not an orphan. I'm a foster kid!" — sass to go along with a heart so big it melts all of New York.
Quvenzhane Wallis, that wonder of a child actress from "Beasts of the Southern Wild," is no tap dancing Broadway baby with a voice built to reach the balcony. But director Will Gluck and the producers tailor this production to her talents, and it pays dividends.
Annie has charisma enough to turn a school report on Franklin Roosevelt into a performance piece, with her classmates keeping the beat. She charms her "Hard Knock Life" roommates at the foster home, but not the wannabe who collects checks from the state to take care of them all. Miss Hannigan (Cameron Diaz, vamping it up) has never gotten over being kicked out of C & C Music Factory in the '90s. She's a bitter drunk who shrieks at the five kids she cares for.
Meanwhile, Daddy Warbucks has been transformed into Will Stacks (Jamie Foxx), a cellphone magnate who sees his run for mayor as a chance to grow his business. He's a Purell addict, fretting about having to meet people and, you know, get germs.
"Whoa whoa," he gripes to his campaign manager, Guy (Bobby Cannavale), and his assistant, Grace (Rose Byrne). "I gotta feed hobos?"
Stacks is a victim of his own spit-takes at every event where he has to eat soup kitchen food. But if viral videos can drag him down in the polls, video of him scooping Annie out of danger in traffic brings him up. Guy convinces Stacks to take in the kid and get as many photos of "Little Orphan Annie" as he can.
All Annie wants to do is find her real parents, visiting the restaurant where she was abandoned years before, waiting and hoping.
Gluck ("Easy A") keeps the pace brisk through the early acts. Some songs from the stage musical are moved offstage, but kept as part of the texture, sung by pop singers such as Sia (who also composed new tunes for the film) and Halli Cauthery. Others are transformed into marvels of kid-friendly choreography. Byrne and Wallis surprise in the giddy duet "I Think I'm Gonna Like It Here," shot on the roof of Stacks' automated penthouse. Diaz is fearlessly mean in "Little Girls" and she and Cannavale kill "Easy Street." Foxx is a proven crooner who shows a kid-friendly side in his duets with Wallis, who is blessed with a pleasant natural voice, if not one that's ready for her own record contract — yet.
The banter is clever. We're reminded that Sandy, the dog, shares the name with a certain storm. And the picture is peppered with cameos — Patricia Clarkson as a customer burned by Stacks' cellphones, Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis star in a movie whose premiere the rich guy and the orphan attend, and Michael J. Fox endorses Stacks' mayoral race opponent.
Even with all this sparkle, the film staggers through its third act. By then, the script has rubbed the rough edges off the villains and made whatever point it was going to make several times over.
But it's nice to see "Annie" find life beyond the bright red dress, the curly red wigs and generations of stage moms shoving their little darlings into the spotlight to belt out that something — I forget exactly what — "is only a day away."
Rated PG for some mild language and rude humor
Running time: 118 minutes