There’s probably a whole generation or two who have no idea that the song It’s a Hard Knock Life came from a Broadway musical. In 1999, rapper Jay-Z sampled the song and called it Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem). In order to use the catchy sample with permission, the rapper is said to have told composer Charles Strouse that, as a child, after seeing Annie on Broadway, he was so influenced by the theme that he wrote an essay about it at school and won a writing competition. He was lying. But it got him the permission he was looking for. At the time the rap was the artist’s most successful single to date.
Shawn Jay-Z Carter is now listed as one of the several producers for the new, updated version of Annie released just in time for the Christmas season, though Broadway purists beware: whatever you know about the show is best left at the door. Comparisons will drive you crazy, particularly in the area of the beloved score.
In this new re-telling, Annie (Quvenzhane Wallis from the acclaimed Beasts of the Southern Wild) is Annie Bennett, a child from a Harlem foster home who wants to find her parents. Billionaire Will Stacks (Jamie Foxx in an update of the Daddy Warbucks character) is running for mayor of New York City. After rescuing Annie from a speeding truck, an event that a passerby records and uploads for everyone to see, Stacks’ political approval rating suddenly climbs. In an instant he’s become a child-saving hero and the city loves him for it. Taking advantage of his sudden rise in the polls, Stacks creates a publicity event by becoming Annie’s temporary guardian with plenty of photo ops. Annie, full of bright ideas, particularly when it comes to getting out of her foster home on a more permanent basis, tells Stacks, “I bet if I moved in with you, you’ll become President.” It’s a crazy idea, but it just might work; at least, as far as the mayoral race is concerned.
The change of time, place and character is initially handled well. In an opening classroom setting, a young white girl with red curly hair called Annie gives a show-and-tell presentation to the class. Upon conclusion the teacher then calls on a second Annie, the one he calls Annie-B, a young black student who proceeds to engage the class with a hand-clapping, desk banging Stomp-like rap heralding FDR’s New Deal, a moment meant to faintly echo the original’s New Deal for Christmas. The baton is passed and a new Annie is established.
Cameron Diaz is Miss Hannigan who here is a failed pop/rock singer fallen on hard times. She now makes ends meet by taking in five foster children while collecting the money received from the state. “I was almost one of Hootie’s Blowfish,” she laments when looking back on where things went wrong. Director Will Gluck has Diaz deliver most of her lines with the broad strokes of a vaudeville performer. The character is comically bitter of what life has served and she takes it out on her foster kids. While the style may seem better suited to a theatrical pantomime performance, there’s actually a spark of the original Miss Hannigan in her exaggerated manner – she’s the spoiled brat who never grew up – plus her moment of redemption that comes later is surprisingly nicely played.
There is no Rooster and his gangster-moll girlfriend posing as Annie’s long-lost parents. They’re replaced by a couple of actors auditioned by Miss Hannigan to play pretend. Gone, too, are all the Christmas scenes at the White House. Plus, Annie’s signature phrase ‘Leapin’ Lizards’ is now the name of a band on stage at a nightclub who accompany Diaz and crooked campaign manager Guy (Bobby Cannavale) on a jazzy version of Easy Street.
Knowing the original and watching the new is like witnessing something odd that exists only in a parallel universe; you know the characters even though they’re different and you know where the story is going even though it’s taking a different route, plus you know the songs, sort of, but if the Jay-Z sampling in his Ghetto Anthem drove you nuts then steer clear. Updates and changes to familiar characters are okay if they’re working – Jamie Foxx is perfectly fine as Stacks, so too is Rose Byrne’s Grace now played as an English rose, and once you get used to the style, Cameron Diaz’s over-the-top Colleen Hannigan is funny – but playing around with the score may cause heartburn.
Because of the change of time from the depression era to present day, many of the original songs with their 1933 references are gone. There’s no N.Y.C and both A New Deal for Christmas and We’d Like to Thank You, Herbert Hoover are missing. What is left are re-arranged as pop/rock numbers that would not sound out of place in a night club, thus standards such as It’s a hard Knock Life and Tomorrow have a driving beat, I Think I’m Gonna Like It Here begins with a pounding drum riff reminiscent of Toni Basil’s ode to Mickey and that great production number sung originally by the foster kids while listening to Annie on the radio, You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile, is reduced to an over-produced background theme used to accompany Annie while she attends a movie premiere. It sounds awful.
Frankly, the film is a mess, but the degree to how messy this re-telling will feel depends on how well you know or love the original Broadway show. Younger family members who have no knowledge of Annie, either the John Houston film or the show, or even the original strip cartoon upon which the whole thing is based, may enjoy the updates, particular if they’re still playing Jay-Z’s sampling, but others may not be so happy. Updating the Depression era to present day is an okay gimmick – fortunately the original remains intact and will long continue to play after this version fades – but decimating the score to this degree is unforgivable.
MPAA Rating: PG Length: 118 Minutes Overall Rating: 6 (out of 10)