In the beginning of this version of Annie, Quvenzhané Wallis, starring as the famous cartoon orphan, gives a presentation to her class about her favorite president, Franklin D. Roosevelt. During the Great Depression, lots of people were poor and very few were rich. It was like today, only without the internet, she explains as her classmates beat light hip-hop rhythms on their desks, Stomp style. But then FDR made all the poor people rich, and everybody was happy.
This is not quite how the history books record it, of course, but I guess family entertainment needs an educational aspect to partially justify its existence, or, in the case of Annie, to justify two hours of product placement.
Annie has the feel of a vanity project for Jay-Z. The hip-hop mogul who had one of his biggest hits in 1998's "Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)," which samples one of the two songs everyone knows from the 1977 Broadway musical. But poverty must seem like a distant memory to Jay-Z at this point, since his musical output for the past few years has pretty much been songs about how rich he is, and how he wants to get even richer. So as part of his "getting even richer" program, he enlisted fellow super-rich dad hip-hop star Will Smith to co-executive produce this remake of the class-conscious musical for the mobile phone age.
For Wallis, however, the memory of poverty must be much clearer. At age 5, the child of a teacher and truck driver was found at a cattle-call audition by the director of 2012's Sundance winner Beasts of the Southern Wild, and subsequently became the youngest person ever nominated for a Best Actress Oscar. She was reportedly paid more to play Annie than was spent in total on her film debut.
You may have noticed that I have been writing about money for this entire review. That's appropriate, since that's pretty much what Annie is about. As a little orphan, Annie doesn't have any. Instead of an orphanage, she lives in a foster home/child services scam run by Miss Hannigan (Cameron Diaz, who at least looks like she's having fun most of the time) with a bevy of other unfortunates. She pines for her parents until one day, while chasing a stray dog she names Sandy, she is saved from certain death by Mr. Will Stacks (Jamie Foxx, who is usually more able to convincingly look like he's having fun), a cell phone mogul whose Bloomberg-like mayoral bid is floundering. His two campaign handlers, Grace (Rose Byrne) and Guy (Bobby Cannavale) think he needs to look more human to the voters, so he takes Annie to live in his Tony Stark-like penthouse high above New York City, where she charms him and the rest of the city with her wit and spunk.
Wallis remains a compelling screen presence, but for any actor, it's one thing to do indie realism and quite another thing to do musical theater. She's game, even when she's being out danced and out sung by her fellow orphans, and she at least doesn't embarrass herself like Foxx, who will likely go to his grave remembering the time a director told him to stand still and hold the Purell bottle so the camera can get a nice long shot of the label. Product placement has long been a scourge of Hollywood filmmaking, but Annie is the most egregious offender in recent memory. When a character takes a moment to read off the model number of the Bell helicopter he's piling into for the big chase scene, it's clear the balance has tipped from escapist movie musical to extended infomercial. It's so egregious that the film finds itself compelled to comment on it, with Grace wisecracking to Annie at the clumsy film-within-a-film Twilight parody they attend, "Product placement is the only thing keeping the film industry afloat these days." Annie is an argument that it's time to let that kind of filmmaking sink.