Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (September 25, 2012)
All of us have our regrets and can look back at parts of our lives and wonder, “What was I thinking?” Actually, that sentiment covers an awful lot of my life, but no aspect more so than the affection for musicals that I held when I was a kid.
By my 12th birthday in 1979, I’d seen the light and I turned toward the forces of good (music) forever - the Beatles saved me - but prior to that, my enjoyment of the era’s pop/rock tunes was mixed with fondness for then-current stage musicals. I went to see quite a few of these with my parents, and greatly enjoyed works like The Wiz
Annie - the musical adaptation of the Little Orphan Annie cartoon - was among my favorites. It’s hard to remember what an odd project this seemed to be at the time; nowadays everything is adapted into something or other, but I think a musical comic strip was pretty unique when Annie appeared in 1977.
The show clearly became a huge success and talk soon turned to the inevitable film version of the stage production. I’m sure this rendition seemed like a sure-fire hit, especially when the enormous popularity of 1978’s movie edition of Grease proved that musicals could still generate boffo box office.
Granted, any number of fairly-unsuccessful movie musicals - like 1978’s The Wiz - argued otherwise, but Annie started its journey to film and finally appeared in the summer of 1982. With legendary director John Huston at the reins and boasting a solid cast of professionals like Albert Finney, Carol Burnett, Bernadette Peters, Tim Curry, Ann Reinking and others, plus 10-year-old newcomer Aileen Quinn - the winner of a massive talent search - in the title role, how could it fail?
Pretty easily. The movie wasn’t a financial flop but it didn’t generate as much “buzz” as the producers hoped, and its $57 million gross was nothing to cause much excitement. In a busy summer - with much more successful films like ET the Extra-Terrestrial, Star Trek II and Poltergeist on screens - Annie came and went without much fuss.
30 years later, Annie seems just as limp and silly as it did in 1982. As is the case with many musicals, the storyline barely exists. We find Little Orphan Annie (Quinn) stuck in a New York City orphanage with a group of other cute young girls. Despite their bleak lives - they’re constantly hounded by nasty house mother Miss Hannigan (Burnett) - Annie maintains a consistently-cheery disposition and always feels certain that better times are right around the corner; she just knows that her parents will soon come and retrieve her from that nasty orphanage!
Some sunshine eventually enters her life when billionaire Oliver Warbucks (Finney) decides to host an orphan for a week as a PR stunt. His assistant Grace Farrell (Reinking) picks the irrepressible Annie, and she inevitably wins over gruff “Daddy” Warbucks and all of his staff - which apparently includes President Franklin Roosevelt (Edward Herrmann).
Warbucks decides to help Annie find her birth parents, but inevitably, scam artists arrive on the scene in the form of Hannigan, her brother Rooster (Curry), and his girlfriend Lily (Peters). Also inevitably, all ends well as the baddies are punished and Warbucks decides to adopt Annie.
While I generally try to avoid too much plot information because I hate to reveal “spoilers”, I took the chance here because - well, c’mon! It’s Annie! It’s not like I’m spilling the beans about The Crying Game or The Sixth Sense. The film features a simplistic plot that exists solely as an excuse to showcase some musical numbers.
And that it does, though I couldn’t stand a single tune heard in the movie. Bizarrely, the stage version’s most popular number - the dreadful and ubiquitous “Tomorrow” - loses its solo performance by Annie and is transformed into a sing-along for Annie, Warbucks, FDR and Eleanor! Huh? At least the filmmakers had the good taste to keep the president in his chair; it wouldn’t have surprised me to see them make FDR dance.
“Good taste” is a commodity in short supply through this nauseating film. I frequently had to fight the urge to slap myself; actually, I wanted to slap Quinn due to her disgustingly forced chipper and cute presence, but since that would be impossible, I wanted to hit myself instead.
Easily the least palatable scenes in the film are those in the orphanage; there we must confront a slew of precocious and “adorable” youngsters, not just one with a bad perm. I like kids a lot, but not these kinds of artificial show-biz creations who couldn’t take a breath without permission from their stage mothers.
One might think that the remainder of the cast would save the project, but they’re rendered impotent in the horrible face of it all. Nothing can negate a) the saccharine-sweet tunes, and b) those damned kids! None of the adults are bad, really - Finney even manages a couple of minor laughs - but they can’t overcome the untalented terror that is Aileen Quinn. They auditioned 8000 kids and she was the best they could do?!
Perhaps. I have to admit that Annie would have been a tough sell for me in any case. However, in my defense, I should relate that I’ve developed some grudging admiration for a few movie musicals. After all, I gave My Fair Lady and Chicago positive reviews, and I even liked parts of West Side Story and The Sound Of Music. Unfortunately, Annie never remotely approaches that level. John Huston isn’t exactly a name I associate with musicals; how he got wrapped up in this clunker is anybody’s case. Whatever the case, Annie is a perfectly dreadful dud.