Judge Bryan Pope is never fully dressed, with or without a smile.
"Why any kid would want to be an orphan is beyond me."
Solid family entertainment is so rare these days that I almost hate to take 1982's Annie to task for its infractions. After all, not since The Black Stallion has a movie had so much potential to appeal to all ages while remaining a dignified enterprise. Alas, when the end result is such a narrative mess with a miscast leading actress, it's hard to turn a blind eye. Gen-X women beware: I'm about to fling mud on one of your childhood favorites, especially when I argue that the film's made-for-television sequel provides a truer representation of the precocious curly top.
Facts of the Case
It's Depression-era New York City, and plucky red-headed orphan Annie (Aileen Quinn) still harbors hope that her parents will one day return to claim her. After several botched attempts at escaping Ms. Hannigan's (Carol Burnett) iron grip, a deux ex machina arrives in the form of Grace Farrell (Ann Reinking), soft-spoken private secretary to bellowing billionaire Oliver Warbucks (Albert Finney). Farrell invites Annie for a week in the lap of luxury at the Warbucks mansion. With her newfound canine friend Sandy in tow, Annie leaves the orphanage behind and, naturally, wins Warbucks' heart. Warbucks wants to adopt the little tyke, but Hannigan, her brother Rooster (Tim Curry), and his girlfriend Lily (Bernadette Peters) have other plans.
• Annie—A Royal Adventure
En route to London, the girls become embroiled in a fiendish plot by some "sinister characters" to obliterate Buckingham Palace and the royal family. Leapin' lizards!
My goodness, how Little Orphan Annie has changed since the Chicago Tribune first introduced her in 1924. After spending more than fifty years slapping around crooks, politicians and Nazis, the precocious, street-smart moppet found herself the subject of the phenomenally popular 1977 Mike Nichols-produced Broadway musical, which in turn became a big-budget film directed by the legendary John Huston. Sure, she acquired a pair of pupils, but she lost her toughness. Gone is the indefatigable, forthright adolescent who pursued truth, justice, and The American Way. In her place was a cute-as-a-button ten-year-old who, all evidence suggests, wanted a sugardaddy for a week.
Newcomer Aileen Quinn does her best, but her abilities are, to be kind, limited. Like a true Broadway baby, Quinn never misses her mark. She sings, she dances, she flashes her dimpled cheeks on cue. She looks the part, but her range of emotions is narrow. When the scene calls for maturity beyond her years (while comforting a fellow orphan, for example), the best Quinn can muster is wide-eyed optimism. When she gently breaks Warbucks' heart, we again get wide-eyed optimism. Her eyes get quite a workout, which would be great were this a Visine ad.
One wonders what attracted Huston to such a sanitized, would-be blockbuster. The same question was asked of Robert Altman two years earlier when he made Popeye—a critical and commercial flop, sure, but also a weird, fascinating one that at least had Altman's prints all over it. With Annie, we find no trace of the man who gave us The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The African Queen, and Key Largo. Of course, Annie provides Huston with terribly flimsy source material. The screenplay is as thin as the funny papers from which it sprang. Lacking the gritty human drama that is a hallmark of Huston's best work (Annie's ill-conceived, action-heavy suspension bridge climax is a desperate attempt at manufacturing urgency and conflict where none exists), the film is a series of connectors that carry us through ho-hum exposition and on to the next Good Part. It's moviemaking as connect-the-dots by a man who deserves far more than being a director-for-hire.
But here's the good news: What fantastic Good Parts this movie has, thanks to marvelous production numbers and a whopper of a supporting cast. One worries that Annie's energy level peaks too early with the energetic "Hard Knock Life." With its relentless army of moppets uniting in sister solidarity to rally against such unpleasantries as cold mush and no Santa Claus, the number is a flurry of imaginative, lively choreography. The same goes for "I Think I'm Gonna Like it Here," "We Got Annie" (wherein the magnificent Ann Reinking is finally unleashed after an hour of being primly buttoned down and pinned up) and "Let's Go to the Movies" (filler, but a passable replacement for the stage show's "NYC"). Peculiarly, the show's signature number, "Tomorrow," provides the film's weakest moment, thanks to pedestrian, careless staging. During what should be the film's most personal, uplifting scene, the audience is relegated to outsider status by having to watch Quinn perform with her back toward the camera.
It's no coincidence that the film's best numbers belong to Carol Burnett. As the vile, gin-swilling Ms. Hannigan, the magnificent Burnett is clearly having the time of her life. Whether she's making lascivious advances toward Warbucks, or berating her charges ("Listen up, my little pig droppings."), she brings desperately needed energy to the film's non-musical sequences. By story's end, she has become so wickedly endearing that she is even crowned as a hero of sorts (a plot point that irks my wife to this day). Finney also makes the most of the one-dimensional Warbucks, disappearing into the role by employing some of the same over-the-top theatrics (notice how he barnstorms his way through his first appearance) that he used when creating some of his other broad characters, such as Hercule Poirot and Ebenezer Scrooge.
Annieis a pleasant enough houseguest, and your children will be singing the tunes until bedtime. Aside from a laughably phony fireworks display, two or three shots of an obviously contemporary NYC skyline, and a jarring anachronism or two (fans of classic cinema will immediately raise an eyebrow at Camille's appearance), the production values are first rate. And, again, it has that grand dame Carol Burnett.
With this "special anniversary edition," Annie takes a spanking that would make Ms. Hannigan beam with pride. Sony breaks the cardinal rule of film musicals by cropping the original widescreen picture down to fullscreen. For a musical that screams BIG BIG BIG! at every turn, this is a critical error. Huston might have been asleep at the wheel throughout this picture, but he still knew how to frame a shot, although you'd never know it here thanks to the pan-and-scan treatment. And let's face it: The 1.33:1 aspect ratio isn't anywhere near large enough to let Reinking stretch those gorgeous gams. Otherwise, the image is clear, the colors true. Unlike the picture, the soundtrack is a treat (I listened to the Dolby 5.1 track). Crystal clear dialogue, with amped-up sound during the musical numbers—this is how a big-budget, energetic musical should sound.
The package comes equipped with meager extras aimed entirely toward kids (strange, considering the film's strong adult following). The most substantial feature is the brief featurette "My Hollywood Adventure with Aileen Quinn." Every bit as Golly gee! as its title suggests, "Adventure" gives a kid's eye, whirlwind tour of the making of the movie. Seeing the adult Quinn is a kick, but don't expect her to dish about the production. This is strictly promotional fluff.
Also included are a "Hard-Knock Life" music video by the pop group Play, a karaoke-style sing-along, "The Age of Annie" trivia game, bonus trailers (curiously, no Annie trailer) and "Act Along with Annie," in which Quinn gives children direction before sending them off to re-enact some of her more famous scenes. It's a pointless waste of time. Instead, I wish Sony had sprung for a commentary track reuniting Quinn with her costars.
Thirteen years later, the world's favorite orphan returned for another adventure, only this time it was on the small screen. But don't be dismayed. Although it is a (mostly) nonmusical, made-for-television venture with scaled-down production values, Annie…A Royal Adventure has enough charm and story to give its big-screen predecessor a run for its money. Finally, Annie is given something to do that doesn't involve a full orchestra. She searches for clues, gets locked in medieval dungeons, and outsmarts the bad guys at every turn. This Annie knows how to spring into action.
Ashley Johnson (who you may remember from Growing Pains, but who will always be Gretchen Grundler to me) may not seem a natural for the role—and she isn't helped by her Day-Glo orange Wonder Mop of a wig—but she is an accomplished comedic actress. She brings a no-nonsense sensibility to the role, sparking it with moments of fun mischief (at various points, she proves savvy enough to assemble all the right clues, but that doesn't stop her from jumping to the wrong conclusions).
Like the original Annie, this production has its own grand dame, this time from across the pond. Joan Collins tears into the role of Lady Edwina Hogbottom with great relish, adding immeasurably to the fun. Collins may be a one-trick pony (she's playing nothing but variations on her Alexis Carrington for the past twenty years), but what a trick it is. The great Ian McDiarmid also turns in a fun performance as Dr. Eli Eon, having a great time with his screwy role.
The time constraints that come with being a television movie work to this movie's advantage. Mere minutes after the opening credits and a brief encounter with Ms. Hannigan (a bizarre Carol Cleveland, the film's one sour note), the story is off and running to merry old England. It contains enough pratfalls, red herrings, close calls and chases to keep even the most easily distracted young viewer interested. It's a harmless good time for kids of all ages.
Interestingly, the filmmakers have the cast reprise the original film's signature song, "Tomorrow," during the final scene. While the tune provides a rousing finish (and is more thrilling here than in the original), it is entirely unnecessary. This Annie is the real deal, and she doesn't need the musical padding to prove it.
Annie—A Royal Adventure is presented in its original full-frame format, and it features a rich Dolby 2.0 surround audio track, with no extras.
If you own the previous edition of Annie, which preserves the film's original aspect ratio, don't let the extras on this edition fool you into a double-dip. Stick with what you have. As for Annie—A Royal Adventure? Film purists will likely be appalled by the transgression from John Huston's original, but fans of the original comic strip will find much to enjoy. Recommended.
Like I'm gonna throw a passel of orphans in the pen. Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice, Annie
Perp Profile, Annie
Distinguishing Marks, Annie
• Exclusive musical performance of "It's a Hard Knock Life" by pop group Play
Scales of Justice, Annie: A Royal Adventure
Perp Profile, Annie: A Royal Adventure
Distinguishing Marks, Annie: A Royal Adventure
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