(Guest post by Greg Forster)
How do I love the new Annie movie? Let me count the ways:
1) It’s really entertaining, as long as you don’t expect too much from it. It’s not saccharine and treacley like the original Annie. In fact, the very first thing you see on the screen is a huge, completely unsubtle, on-the-nose message from the filmmakers announcing: “This Annie will not be saccharine and treacley like that other Annie!” It’s a hilarious gag.
There’s a real artistry to the way this movie does the Annie story without treacle. I think half my enjoyment of the movie was admiring how they pulled this off.
Consider how they handle “Tomorrow.” You can’t have Annie without “Tomorrow.” But audiences in the post-Seinfeld culture are not going to sit still for “Tomorrow.” Not unless you do something that forces them to. How to do it? By putting the song in an unhappy scene. Annie gets a major disappointment – life basically kicks her in the teeth. The sad moment just lingers on screen quietly for a bit. And then Annie half-says, half-sings to herself, quietly, “the sun will come out tomorrow.” And a moment later she’s singing “Tomorrow” and it’s slowly but surely building steam. And you’re rooting for her.
These people actually know how to make a frikkin’ movie. Can you believe it? Where have they been for the last twenty years?
2) It has a fantastic set of core values. After the opening scene, Annie is racing out of school to get somewhere she needs to be on time. Her friends call out: “Hope you make it!” “We’ll cover for you!” “Good luck!” And to this last statement she turns around and shouts back: “Luck is for suckers!” We then follow her through the city as she uses her ingenuity (and several prominent product placements) to get where she needs to be on time.
The basic message of this movie is: “Yes, life often sucks, but if you work hard and have guts, you can get ahead. Once you do, remember that you need people, too.” And we can’t have too much of that these days.
The Daddy Warbucks character – who for obvious reasons can’t be called “Warbucks” anymore so he is now, cleverly, “Will Stacks” – takes Annie on a helicopter ride above the city. The following exchange occurs (I quote from memory):
Annie: So how did you get to be the king of the city?
Stacks: I don’t think I’m the king of anything. I just work my butt off. The harder I work, the more opportunities I have. In life you have to play the hand you’re dealt, no matter how bad the cards are.
Annie: What if you don’t have any cards?
Stacks: You bluff.
He then sings her a song – a song! – about how anyone can get ahead if they work hard and have “heart.” To some extent it even oversells the point; in fact, not everyone can get mega-wealthy and become famous and have a helicopter. But like I said, you can’t have too much praise for hard work these days.
Praise for hard work is basically hope.
3) The core values are wrapped in a (mild and relatively unobtrusive) progressive political veneer. Some of my conservative friends are put off by the movie’s occasionally bowing toward the idols of contemporary liberal fashion. To the contrary, that enhances my enjoyment. If the work ethic is exclusively “conservative,” only conservatives will have the work ethic. If praise for hard work is hope, seeing hard work affirmed across ideological lines provides some justification for that hope. And this leads me to my next point.
4) What I think I enjoyed most is that the makers of this movie felt responsible to the story of Annie. I almost wrote, to the “franchise,” but the “franchise” is essentially the business value of the Annie story to its copyright owners, and while that is considerable, this is about more than that.
Most remakes or reboots pay relatively little attention to the heart of the story they’re handling. They keep the superficial stuff the same – the names of the characters and so on – but they want to “update” the franchise, make it marketable today. So they swap out the old engine (the heart of the story) for a new one, and keep the chassis more or less the same for the sake of brand recognition.
This movie keeps the engine and swaps out the chassis. That’s what a remake ought to do.
So of course there are some mild liberal pieties. The Annie story is about rich and poor; there used to be a time when you could tell that story without politics, but not now. Of course there are several major plot twists that would never have worked in the original Annie. They do work with this Annie. The point is, this Annie is still Annie.
And of course the millionaire is now black and has an interracial love interest. That’s the world we live in now, everyone.
Annie is all the more Annie – she is more Annie than she ever was before – for being black. Who has more right to sing “It’s a Hard Knock Life”? And who has had more occasion to learn that life means looking toward “Tomorrow” by faith rather than by sight?
The story of Annie has always been America’s ideal of itself at its best. I’m not sure a black Annie isn’t a greater sign of triumph over historic injustice than a black president.
Now why on earth didn’t they name him “Bill” Stacks?