Film Review by Kam Williams
Present-Day Harlem Provides Setting for Update of Beloved Cartoon Classic
Little Orphan Annie was a syndicated comic strip created by Harold Gray (1894-1968) which debuted in the New York Daily News on August 5, 1924. The cartoon revolved around the misadventures of an adorable 11 year-old with curly red hair who’d exclaim “Leapin’ lizards!” whenever she got excited.
The original strip also featured Oliver “Daddy” Warbucks, the millionaire who rescued her from an orphanage; Punjab, his loyal manservant; and Sandy, her adopted stray puppy. The popular serial was first brought to the big screen in 1932, and was adapted to the stage in 1977 as a Broadway musical.
Directed by Will Gluck (Easy A), this fifth film version is very loosely based on that Tony-sweeping production. But the story unfolds in the present at a foster home in Harlem instead of during the Depression at an orphanage located in lower Manhattan. And a few names have been changed, but the roles and motivations basically remain the same.
At the point of departure, we find Annie (Quvenzhane Wallis) and her fellow wards of the state caught in the clutches of cruel Colleen Hannigan, (Cameron Diaz), an abusive alcoholic with a mean streak who takes delight in exploiting the little girls entrusted to her care. This predicament inspires the mistreated waifs to do what else but sing about how “It’s the Hard Knock Life” for them.
Meanwhile, Annie futilely sits in front of the restaurant where she was abandoned long ago, praying for the return of the parents who’d abandoned her, so the sun’ll come out “Tomorrow.” However, a ray of hope arrives when she crosses paths with mobile phone magnate Will Stacks (Jamie Foxx) who soon invites the grimy street urchin to move into his posh penthouse with a panoramic view and state-of-the-art amenities.
But did the billionaire make the generous overture merely for a photo opportunity to improve his image as a mayoral candidate? Will the cute kid be callously kicked back to the curb once the campaign’s over?
The outcome won’t be much of a mystery to the average adult, though it will probably prove compelling enough to keep tykes and maybe even ‘tweens glued to the edges of their seats for the full two hours. As for the lead performance, Quvenzhane Wallis is quite endearing as the latest incarnation of Annie, right from the opening scene where she ostensibly takes the proverbial baton from a freckle-faced redhead (Taylor Richardson) resembling all the other actresses who’ve previously played the part.
Still, the film has a glaring Achilles heel, a mediocre soundtrack. Jamie Foxx has the best singing voice here, by far. The rest of the cast members give it their all, but simply fail to deliver any show-stopping renditions of either the familiar or new tunes.
A 21st Century variation on the age-old theme where an insufferable 1%-er finally gets in touch with his sensitive side with the help of an irresistible ragamuffin representing the downtrodden rest of humanity.
Good (2 stars)
Rated PG for mild epithets and rude humor
Running time: 118 minutes
Distributor: Columbia Pictures