In the opening scene of “Annie,” the camera zeroes in on a little girl in redheaded curls, enthusiastically reciting a report to her classmates on the death of President William Henry Harrison, punctuated with a totally inappropriate tap dance.
Her fellow students moan. She’s followed by another Annie, a street-savvy scrapper who wins over the room with a desktop-banging chant on, of all things, FDR’s New Deal.
New Deal indeed.
It’s an early sign that this “Annie,” whose producers include Will Smith and Jay Z, is determined to give the 37-year-old musical a few noogies.
There are references to Howard Stern, George Clooney, Batman and Katy Perry. Sandy the dog is named after the infamous hurricane. Annie rockets to fame through Twitter and selfies. Evil foster mom Agatha Hannigan (Cameron Diaz) tries to drink away her bitterness after being booted from C&C Music Factory just before an appearance on “The Arsenio Hall Show.” The Daddy Warbucks character, who goes by the name Will Stacks this time around and is played by Jamie Foxx, makes his millions selling cheap cellphones and is running for mayor of New York City.
But in director Will Gluck’s effort to be hip, he forgot to hire a cast that can actually sing and dance.
There’s no denying that as Annie, “Beasts of the Southern Wild” breakout star Quvenzhané Wallis has abundant charm and a heart-melting smile. But Auto-Tune and rapid-fire editing can’t mask the fact that she’s not a strong singer or dancer.
The rest of the cast doesn’t fare much better. Foxx — who can sing — is saddled with some new songs that should never, ever be released on a soundtrack. Diaz slaughters her solos like Mario Batali in a butcher shop.
It’s an amusing novelty to see movie stars take a stab at a family-friendly musical, but it takes more than a recognizable face to pull off elaborate numbers. Only Bobby Cannavale emerges unscathed as Stacks’ ruthless campaign manager, making the most out of his comedic bits and tunes. It’s no coincidence that Cannavale has the most stage experience, with two Tony nominations.
That said, “Annie” is never excruciating. Gluck pulls off an energetic “It’s the Hard Knock Life” that tops the underwhelming staging in John Huston’s 1982 version of “Annie.” Stephanie Kurtzuba mines laughs from her all-too-brief role as a family services representative, flipping and prancing her way through a penthouse apartment in a delightful rendition of “I Think I’m Gonna Like It Here.”
But those pumped-up numbers are among the few moments that will amuse youngsters — unless your children delight in watching Foxx spit out a variety of foods.
At the screening I attended, kids came down with a serious case of the fidgets 90 minutes into the nearly two-hour film, having more fun tearing down the aisles than paying attention to the screen.
There’s still a good film to be made of “Annie,” but it’ll take Broadway veterans, not box-office stars, to pull it off.