I have so many questions about this new Annie movie musical. Who gave 11-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis Whoopi Goldberg’s Sister Act wig? What took a giant bite out of Jamie Foxx’s hairline? And can someone explain all the banging? It starts in the first scene and never stops — kids whacking their desks and stomping on the floor. This musical’s most famous song is “It’s the Hard Knock Life” (let’s just agree that Jay Z’s sampling pushed it ahead of “Tomorrow”), and it’s taken literally. The effects department gooses every sound so it feels like somebody’s trying to break into your house. The early songs have thunderclaps and drum programming that would make Questlove stuff his ears. In the opening minutes, there’s an actual jackhammer plowing into a sidewalk. Under the circumstances, that’s not a metaphor. It’s an instrument.
Why has most of the singing been shot with the actors’ backs to the camera? You can’t tell me that the sense of shame over this movie started on the set! Why didn’t anyone tell Wallis, who’s Annie, or Jamie Foxx, who’s Daddy Warbucks — I’m sorry, who’s mobile-telephone mogul/snooty, Obama-era New York City mayoral candidate Will Stacks (it’s 2014, holla) — that the only way for a musical to work is to face the fact that you’re making a musical?
And how does any musical that stars Foxx and Rose Byrne and Bobby Cannavale get stolen by Cameron Diaz? She can’t sing. She can barely dance. But as Annie’s washed-up, tantrum-prone, thoroughly drunk Harlem foster mother, Miss Hannigan, she crashes into walls, furniture, and musical notes like a wrecking ball. You don’t know whether to give her a Razzie or a DUI. But she’s something. The best musical moment in the movie is hers. She spends “Little Girls” seeing her foster kids appear as coffee tables and chairs, with the actual actors pretending to be the actual décor. It’s cute, Sesame Street staging that she oozes all over. It’s the only bit of imagination in the entire production, the only moment when the prevailing sloppiness seems intended to make you laugh.
The singer, songwriter, and producer Sia is credited with some of the new songs. She helped reupholster this one. It’s slinky and customized for Diaz’s warbling. This Miss Hannigan is a has-been pop professional (C+C Music Factory, and all of that), and her commitment to floozy, boozy brattiness gets a workout. These apartment scenes are also something the director Will Gluck can actually handle: Anything that happens on a sidewalk or in a street makes you want to call AAA.
And yet: Did I really just watch Foxx and Wallis do an entire musical number set inside a moving helicopter? I did, and I’ve never felt more embarrassed for two actors, mostly because Foxx seems embarrassed for himself. Wallis, the sainted, overpraised ragamuffin from Beasts of the Southern Wild, doesn’t not work in this movie. She’s bright and sassy and street-lingo-ed to the max. When Annie’s had enough of Stacks’s paparazzi, she throws up her hand and tells them, “Slow your roll.” You just wish Gluck took his time with her. She’s a natural performer. But her version of Annie looks like she’ll grow up to win an Oscar for Ghost and host The View. Her singing voice is unremarkable — I imagine the gist of all that jackhammering is to distract from the possibility that most of the people in this movie are more shower singers than singer-singers. You can feel Gluck trying to stage these scenes on a figurative cloud. He’s really straining to pull it off and to hide what he can’t. The cuts-per-minute here make watching something by the musical-murderer Rob Marshall seem like paint drying.
Nothing makes you feel old like a lousy remake of a lousy musical that was turned into a lousy movie. But all that lousiness? Thirty-two years ago, I was in love with it. John Huston’s version of Charles Strouse, Martin Charnin, and Thomas Meehan’s Tony-winning show is a disaster. It’s like watching Al Capone repot a plant. But in 1982, it was my disaster. Huston staged some of the numbers on enormous Depression-era sets. The orphanage seemed the size of a Ford plant, with girls leaping on beds and swinging from the ceiling. Aileen Quinn played Annie like the most desperate confident person you’ll ever meet. She nailed comic-strip pluck, and her singing lingers, like tinnitus.
But I remember every song. I didn’t care that Return of the Jedi was coming. I had the cast album to Annie. No one in this remake is Carol Burnett or Bernadette Peters or Tim Curry or even Geoffrey Holder, who really had nothing to do but smile — he was … Punjab. But his charisma and verticality spoke louder than the movie’s racism. In Foxx’s defense, Albert Finney seemed even more miserable as the bald, toe-tapping Daddy Warbucks. But I was 7, and I was in heaven. Which is to say that the kids who clapped and whooped the night I saw this movie are probably experiencing their own heaven and will forever treasure Diaz’s knock-kneed singing as I did Burnett’s (superior) interpretation. The spirit that Gluck’s trying to infuse this movie with is admirable. But why didn’t anyone tell him that he’s working with a corpse?
There’s no pleasure to be received from the end of Peter Jackson’s three-part Hobbit. Untold manpower, pixels, and money culminate in the gangbusters final installment. It can’t redeem the useless tedium of the first two, which exist for gargantuan profits and structural necessity. After all: You can’t have a third floor without a first and a second. But The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies makes a sound argument for ranch-style storytelling — my copy of J.R.R. Tolkien’s 1937 novel, The Hobbit, or, There and Back Again is 300 pages. To arrive at the idea that it’s an epic, you really have to believe in “again.”
What remains to tell of the plot entails at last restoring the film’s displaced dwarves to their treasure-packed Lonely Mountain, which is the rightful dominion of the dwarf warrior, Thorin (Richard Armitage), who comes down with a case of the demagogues. He refuses to band together with the Elves and suddenly homeless humans of Lake-town, which was turned to flaming ash by Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch), to counter the alliance of goblin and Warg armies. Attempting to keep the peace is Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), whose self-protective mix of wonder, diplomacy, and dishonesty remain the most interesting character traits in these films.
Luke Evans returns as Bard the Bowman, as do a boatload of other actors — Orlando Bloom, Ken Stott, Hugo Weaving, Christopher Lee, and Ryan Gage, who spends his many (many) scenes as a comically sniveling human daring children to call for the death of a fictional person. Cate Blanchett scraps with Sauron (Cumberbatch, again). Ian McKellen’s stoner wizard, Gandalf, continues to waft through the plot like the smoke from the pipe he tokes, while Lee Pace’s royal elf gives him hilariously bitchy stink-eye. There’s vaguely forbidden love between big elf (Evangeline Lilly) and dwarf (Aidan Turner). And, even beneath that hair, Armitage manages to turn Thorin into a character of attractive theatrical conflict, a guy in need of a power exorcism.
Jackson has come to think of himself as a director of vast scale. He can go up and out and over the top. In Five Armies, he still has that dazzling sense of fantastical, cinematic showmanship. Blanchett’s battle with Sauron culminates in a spasm of violent noise and warped psychedelia that satisfies that inarticulably visceral desire to be simultaneously awed and terrified. An hour later, Jackson amuses himself by cutting three scenes into a single action sequence, any one of which would have been the showstopper of a regular movie. Jackson, of course, wasn’t making a regular movie. With Five Armies, he was making all the movies.
Surely there was a way to do just one Hobbit — this one. But the marketplace rewards three, so why not? And as a friend of mine reminded me: Jackson had that giant production studio built in New Zealand. It employs a lot of people. Chill out. So Jackson’s sense of excess is very much a creative (and maybe moral) motivation: too much for everybody! This new movie is like some cupcake frosting or the orgasmic finale of a fireworks show: It operates under the assumption that too much is what we want. Put it this way: Too much is better than nothing. But too much would have come in handy five and a half hours and two years ago.