This weekend saw the opening of a type of film exceedingly rare in our nation's cinema history: a wide-release kid's movie with an African-American girl as the protagonist. (Akeelah and the Bee and Princess and the Frog are pretty much the film's only peers, though 2015 will add Home to the tiny list). That was reason enough for me and my daughter to be excited about the new remake of Annie. (As my daughter put it, "She has hair like me!")
But the critics have (somewhat eagerly) piled on to tell you to not see the movie. The level of dismay, disappointment, even venom seems surprisingly high, with a Rotten Tomatoes critic's score of 29. Many wanted the movie to be a "statement" film, a burden often foisted on films featuring people of color (as opposed to, say, Penguins of Madagascar). Christian Science Monitor sniffs that the movie doesn't investigate the class divide. Meanwhile, New York magazine complains that the movie failed to create "a powerful new myth with a particular African-American slant," adding that the "black angle" is neutralized.
It is strange to expect a wish-fulfillment story like Annie (no matter which version) to offer trenchant commentary on anything, and especially unsettling when a critic born in the Jim Crow era decrees that actors of color must still deliver some specific "black angle" in 2014. While I acknowledge that this film isn't without flaws, I also think these reviews obscure the fact that the film has things to offer if you accept it for what it is: the Annie tale told in ways that kids today might relate to.
There are a lot of good reasons to see this film (and not just that the lead is played by a girl with her natural curls flying like a flag of pride). When we saw Annie, my daughter, her friends, and the dads and moms in the audience left the theatre talking about what so many critics have glossed over: the reasons you should see the movie.
- "Tomorrow" gets a fresh spin. In the hands of director Will Gluck, "Tomorrow" becomes not just an optimistic anthem but a clever cinematic device for showing Annie's emotional backstory. Wallis sings it simply, while she passes imagined images of family everywhere she goes. A father and child seen reflected in a shop window turn out to be a worker lifting a bucket; backpackers become parents with baby carriers in Annie's mind. Instead of a lung-busting belter, it's a subtle, sweet way to show her interior life.
- Wallis nails it. Sometimes Annie leads can be -- how to say this gently -- a bit stage-y: self-consciously plucky and awash in razzmatazz. Wallis shrugs those tics off. She has a presence that engages effortlessly and boasts a quiet ability to deliver joy, pain, doubt, amusement, knowingness, and worry without histrionics or age-inappropriate Ethel-Merman-style vocals.
- The graduation anthem of the future has arrived. There are a number of new songs on the soundtrack (not all equally successful) but the showpiece of this movie is "Opportunity." In a heartfelt solo anthem, Annie sings of seeing her chance but knowing that it's "only part luck," which means she has to step up and deliver her best. It's a sentiment worth noting and repeating for an entitled generation.
- It avoids the "only" syndrome. One reason movies with leads of color get saddled with such high expectations is that often there is a single character tasked with representing all people of color. But in this Annie, not only are both the adult and child leads African-American, we see people of color in every setting, from her foster home to a Guggenheim gala, playing both heroes and villains in the diverse world of a movie about family, not race.
- Any time Jamie Foxx gets to sing in a movie, it's a good thing: Wallis has the ability to sing with heart in ways that suit her character well, but the most accomplished vocals here belong to Foxx. Yes, he gets trapped singing in a helicopter at one point, but he has a killer voice and the charisma to go with it, nailing two new pop ballads. (The soundtrack is half showtune, half pop.)
- The movie is touching without being sappy. The song "Maybe" has always had tear-jerking potential and so does the ending, but both are handled deftly. "Maybe" is sung by all the girls in the foster home with choreography that includes flashlight fireflies and a hand-clapping game that keep it light and sweet, heartfelt without being cloying. And the ending (happy, obviously) punctuates sentiment with flashes of humor.
- It's the birth of a comedian. The movie's scene-stealer is Stephanie Kurtzuba, an actress previously known for roles in dramas like Wolf of Wall Street and TV's The Leftovers. Her small role in Annie shows someone fully committed to a fairly silly character and destined to now be tapped for more comedy.
- It's a good film for chosen families. Annie has long been a touchstone for many adoptive families: it acknowledges the pain of missing birth parents while also showing the power of choosing who you love. The chemistry between Foxx and Wallis buoys the bond between Stacks and Annie, a reminder that not all families start from biology. (This may be as close as the film gets to making a "statement.")
- Annie stays a little girl. Annie and her friends are not sexualized in attire or attitude; she doesn't have a little boyfriend or love interest; and she never starts wearing make-up or straightening her hair to signal her growing maturity. Start to finish she remains a kid, which in itself is refreshing and all too rare in the media of the moment.
- It's just fun. My daughter and her friends had a blast. They loved following Annie's race through the city on foot, subway, and bicycle, as well as the over-the-top "Smart Apartment" scenes (like walls that project whatever you're thinking), and the running joke of Stacks spitting out his food. The movie, unlike most critics, never forgets it's for kids.