Quvenzhané Wallis Can’t Save the ‘Annie’ Reboot, But Her Performance Is More Important Than Critics Let On

When I checked the Rotten Tomatoes page for the Annie reboot this morning, I was surprised to see its positive ratings had crept up past the 20 percent mark. I was surprised because the critical response to the film has felt so universally negative: vicious review after vicious review has reveled in “hard knock life” and “the sun’ll come out tomorrow” puns that are about as unoriginal as the movie’s dialogue, all in the service of complaining about Annie‘s lack of originality.

“This movie is slathered in slush, immersed in yuckiness and positively laminated in ickiness,” The Guardian‘s Peter Bradshaw wrote. “It’s supposed to warm your cockles. It might do something entirely different to your gag reflex. If someone near you in a restaurant is choking and you don’t know the Heimlich manoeuvre – well, hold your smartphone up and play them some YouTube clips of this film. That’ll get the job done.” Even the compliments double as shade: “Mr. Foxx and Ms. Wallis seem to have a nice time together, like people making the best of a long flight by playing a few hands of gin rummy,” A.O. Scott wrote in the Times. “This politically corrupt, economically super-sized Annie is badly off-key,” the LA Times’ Betsy Sharkey said.

How could a family film possibly be offensive enough to elicit such an outpouring of vitriol from mainstream critics? Well, there’s the movie’s glamorization of tech mogul Daddy Warbucks and his one-percenter lifestyle, as seen in Jamie Foxx’s Will Stacks, for one. Its obsession with being so incredibly 2014 means this update revolves around the high-priced gadgets of New York billionaires and, at its least superficial, social media’s ability to connect people, like Annie when she’s taken by her fake “real” parents. It’s an obvious way of pointing out how our world has changed, but the movie sort of has to be at least a little obvious with a PG rating. Annie just may make children wonder why they don’t get to live in a shiny “smart house” high-rise and fly around in a helicopter, instead of making them feel grateful to live in a loving house in the first place (at least that’s how the 1982 Annie movie made me feel as a kid).

There’s also an intense yet somehow simplistic political cynicism permeating the new Annie, as personified by the campaign manager (Bobby Carnivale) for Stack’s mayoral campaign. Perhaps it’s the film’s effort to introduce some version of the political subtext at the heart of the ’70s Broadway musical and Harold Gray’s Little Orphan Annie comic strip, which routinely focus on FDR and his New Deal. This is where 1982’s Annie flailed in its rebranding as a family film, but at least that version honored the stage production’s indelible songs via classic performances from Bernadette Peters, Carol Burnett, and Tim Curry. Cameron Diaz as a trying-too-hard-to-be-a-hot-mess Miss Hannigan, who can’t dance or sing despite a backstory involving C+C Music Factory, doesn’t begin to compare. (Unless it’s all an elaborate C+C Music Factory joke in a kids’ movie? That would be sort of great.)

It’s easy to forget Annie is a musical (and that Jamie Foxx had a music career), because the filmmakers seem to care so little about the songs that appear in the movie, with the exception of the new Sia-penned ballad “Opportunity” and her covers of Annie classics. The one smart decision made on the musical front was showing a little restraint in not updating all the Annie classics as brassy hip-hop tracks.

With Jay Z and Roc Nation president Jay Brown on board as producers, it’s a wonder — and a blessing — Annie wasn’t more of a hip-hopera. But the all-star producers, along with the Smiths, do make their presence known in a way that is undoubtedly positive for young viewers to see on screen, and compensates for some of the film’s flaws: Anne features a successful black entrepreneur and politician, and a strong black girl in the leading role.

Quvenzhané Wallis, the youngest Oscar nominee ever for Beasts of Southern Wild, is the only aspect of Annie that really works, shining with restraint in the sassiness required of the orphan Annie role. Her parental bond with Foxx would be believable even if they looked nothing alike — but the fact that they do is a powerful thing to see. Annie found a way to bring much-needed diversity to a beloved family classic marketed to all families. In that sense, the film serves everyone but the critics.