The Annie Remake Was Not Nearly As Bad As You've Heard


While it might feel like the bro-farce The Interview was the only movie that came out in December 2014, Christmas week also saw the release of another high-profile film made for actual children: the Jay Z/Will Smith-produced remake of Annie, the musical about a gutsy 10-year-old orphan adopted by a billionaire mogul, initially for political opportunity until, obviously, she teaches him how to love something other than money. The reboot has been informally referred to as “Black Annie” because the lead actors are Quvenzhane Wallis and Jamie Foxx, as opposed to white actors in the original 1982 version. It’s an autotuned, social media-centric, 21st-century update to its nearly as saccharine, middling Depression Era-set predecessor—and I haven’t been more excited and emotional about a movie in years.

The original Annie was the Frozen of the 1980s, girl-culturally if not box-office-destroyingly. Its confident, resourceful heroine and all-consuming soundtrack were life altering for a particular generation of girls, despite extremely mixed reviews from adults. The music lodged in our souls, and the primary love story was about family, not romance. Licensed products were must-haves, including Sears’ collection of kidswear, built around Annie’s collared red jersey dress. And the movie’s signature anthem, played on plastic record players until parents wanted to crawl into a dark hole and never come out, taught us to take a step back from our problems because they were never as hopeless as they seemed.

In the fall of 1982, just before my sixth birthday, I pulled on that red Sears dress and sang “Tomorrow,” alone, in front of several hundred classmates and their relatives for my elementary school’s annual talent show. I’d never in my life performed in public, and if I practiced around the house, I made sure no one heard me; my mom says she went into that auditorium full of apprehension about what would come out of my mouth and how I would handle it when it happened. All I remember is being nervous as hell but driven by ego and certainty that I would go home that day with no regrets. That fearless, optimistic redhead made me, barely older than a toddler, want to do something new and terrifying so that the world would know that I could.

About exactly 10 years later, I rehearsed for weeks to audition for the role of the mean, drunk, ultimately semi-redeemed orphanage director Miss Hannigan in a community production of the Broadway play on which Annie was based—only to be cast instead as Sophie, the “lead bum” in a shantytown-set number that had been axed from the film adaptation. The disappointment was severe, I’m still not over it—but I crushed my one solo line (“Today I’m stealing coal for fires, who knew I, COULD STEAAAAL”) so hard that after the first dress rehearsal the director insisted I be un-mic’d. At least that’s how I have always interpreted her decision. One of my first friends after college was, it turned out, another high school Hannigan hopeful-turned-Sophie. We now have matching (non-Annie-related) tattoos.

Eighties Annie girls fell in love with film leads Aileen Quinn, Albert Finney, and Ann Reinking, but more importantly, it’s where the slightly twisted among us first met Carol Burnett, Bernadette Peters, and TIM CURRY. If you walk into a room of certain thirtysomething women and say “Clean this dump,” there is zero percent chance that 100 percent of them won’t yell “’til it shines like the top of the Chrysler Building!” from “It’s the Hard Knock Life,” American music’s most satisfying airing of grievances.

These are the reasons that for the past year, I couldn’t hear one note from the new Annie trailer or even see a movie poster without tearing up. Instead of fearing the slick desecration of a classic (exception: Cameron Diaz in Carol Burnett’s role???), I was giddy that a new generation of girls might claim their own Annie, played by an actress of color who had already moved millions with her talent in Beasts of the Southern Wild. It’s why I melted when my three-year-old daughter yelled, “Dance, Mommy!” in the theater during closing number “I Don’t Need Anything But You,” and why I don’t care that she only remembers one line from “Tomorrow” but sings it for 15-minute stretches. And it’s why I’m still riding for Annie, despite the new film’s hokey internet-era updates, 29% Rotten Tomatoes score, and fairly terrible meritocratic and materialistic messages.

Harold Gray, the cartoonist of the original Little Orphan Annie comic strip, was an anti-New Deal capitalist, and the strip’s elitist, free market-loving, bootstrap philosophy has been maintained in some form throughout its various adaptations. The 1982 Annie is often criticized for its racially insensitive portrayals of servants Punjab and Asp, and at one point, Oliver “Daddy” Warbucks takes Annie on a helicopter to meet President Roosevelt, a friend with whom he has agreed to strongly disagree.

Despite the obvious and potentially great opportunity for Annie to meet President Obama in the remake, her helicopter ride has a different agenda: mobile phone tycoon Will Stacks (Foxx) flies her around the New York skyline to check his cell towers while singing “The City’s Yours,” a new song co-written for the film by Sia and production team Stargate. It’s unsettling to watch Stacks’ “you can be anything if you want it hard enough (and meet the right rich people)” message tunefully relayed to a poor black girl, especially when systematic racial injustice and inequality has been at the center of the year’s most important domestic events (the movie casts black actors in roles previously held by white actors without making race part of the story, which in fact makes it an important part of the story). One plot point does revolve around a brief acknowledgment that many kids fall through the cracks no matter how hard they try—but just as in the original film, Annie overcomes adversity and becomes an instant billionaire because she has extraordinary spirit and impossibly unflappable optimism.

But what my peers and I took away from Annie in our most formative years had nothing to do with the moral and artistic flaws that I can identify as an adult. Annie was a girl who used wit instead of looks to get what she wanted, stood up to bullies, and took fierce care of her friends. She was more impressed by character than by money, and defined family broadly. The songs spoke directly to our experiences and hopes, and helped along what for many of us became a lifelong obsession with music and performance. All of these things are true about the new film, even if we argue about script details, music production, and actor competence (again, Cameron Diaz, see yourself out).

I don’t think the new Annie is likely to rise to Elsa or Anna levels in the center of girl universe in 2015. But like Frozen, itself criticized for packaging progressive ideas in a celebration of traditional privilege, it just might enthrall and inspire utterly regardless of adults’ endless analysis of what good or bad lessons it may or may not contain.

Evie Nagy is a staff writer at Fast Company and a former editor at Rolling Stone and Billboard. Her work was published in Best Music Writing 2010, and she co-wrote the afterword to Out of the Vinyl Deeps, an anthology of rock writing by the late Ellen Willis, the New Yorker‘s first pop music critic. She’s the author of the upcoming 33 1/3 book on Devo’s Freedom of Choice, and lives in Oakland, CA.

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