Judge Maurice Cobbs just wants you to look at Annie's eyes and compare with Village of the Damned. That's all he's saying.
Annie's back and the story continues!
The Asp was always my favorite character from the Little Orphan Annie comic strip. Punjab always gets the hype, but the Asp is the Man. I used to have these huge comic strip compilations when I was a kid, and Daddy Warbucks was one of my personal heroes, but he was only made that much cooler by the fact that he had the Asp on his payroll. The Asp was a mean motor scooter and a bad go-getter—those of you who used to read the old strips know what I mean. They made him a karate expert or something in the movies, but the fact is, the Asp had all these super-mysterious magic powers: Once he was stabbed to death by a gang of bad guys, and another one of Daddy Warbucks's friends brought him back to life. That's the kind of crowd Daddy Warbucks hung out with.
Oh, and Annie's pretty cool, too. Cute little two-fisted redheaded conservative orphan escaping kidnappers and blowing up Nazi submarines and stuff—what's not to love? But the Asp, man. The Asp.
Unfortunately, the Asp doesn't get that much screen time in Annie: A Royal Adventure! But it is a royal adventure nonetheless, and it's sure to be a hit with fans of both the strip and the musical (even though this sequel of sorts isn't a musical. And doesn't have enough Asp action in it).
Facts of the Case
Oliver "Daddy" Warbucks (George Hearn) is going to be knighted by the King of England, so he decides that it's the perfect time to take a cruise across the pond and visit London with Annie (Ashley Johnson, Nine Months) and her friends Hannah and Molly (Emily Ann Lloyd and Camilla Belle, respectively). Also along for the ride are Punjab and the Asp, as well as Professor Eli Eon (Ian McDiarmid, Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones), a brilliant scientist in the employ of Daddy Warbucks and the creator of a mysterious new element called Eonite. But a warning from a Gypsy fortune-teller puts Annie on her guard against sinister characters with evil plans for the Professor's creation—and even more sinister plans for the royal family! Can Annie and her friends thwart these evildoers? How does the beautiful and mysterious Lady Hogbottom (Joan Collins, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat) fit into all this? And will little Molly's head explode from sheer, unbelievable cuteness?
One hint: There is a rather spectacular explosion at the end of the movie. Don't say you weren't warned.
First off, let me say that I absolutely adore John Huston's 1982 version of the stage musical, and for the most part, I really enjoyed this follow-up. It's a wall-to-wall whirlwind of adventure and intrigue, and Ian Toynton, a veteran TV director, navigates an engaging and even occasionally witty script by Trish Soodik. Toynton manages to inject some real suspense amid the silliness, wrapped up in a delightful score by David Michael Frank. Consequently, this is a cut above most "for kids" sequels, but only a cut…there's something just slightly off about the principal characters of Annie and Daddy Warbucks, and when given a choice between characterization and cuteness, the film chooses cuteness every time.
Still, the movie made me laugh out loud with some clever bits (listen very carefully whenever Lady Hogbottom's maid Charity moves, for instance), and the almost unbearable adorability of Annie's friend Molly is enough to thaw even the frostiest curmudgeon. The gratuitous reprise of "Tomorrow" at the end of the movie seemed a bit tacked on and unnecessary, as if somebody suddenly remembered that they'd intended for this movie to be a musical after all, and it takes away from what should be Daddy Warbucks's moment as he's being knighted. As it is, it seems that it's just not that big a deal to the principal characters, and that left me feeling a bit let down after all I'd gone through to get to that payoff. And they didn't even have any, say, dancing Beefeaters, so what's the point?
I have to say, though, on the technical side, that I was really impressed with the picture quality; it certainly was a step above what you'd normally get from a made-for-TV movie. Likewise, the audio quality is crisp and rich, giving my surround sound system quite a workout. All in all, it's a well-put-together disc, in spite of the absence of any sort of special features.
In this adventure, Annie is played by Ashley Johnson, who you might remember from the Hugh Grant comedy Nine Months or from the 2000 Mel Gibson fluff-fest What Women Want. I don't remember her from either, because I didn't see them, but I did a search for her on Yahoo, and trust me—she grew up. As Annie, Ashley lacks a certain…what the French call "I don't know what." Her lisp is rather annoying and doesn't fit well with the character, and I never really was convinced that she was Annie. I say this in spite of the fact that's she's a good actress and plays Annie with the pluck, humor, and resourcefulness the character deserves. It's not her fault that she doesn't click; she and the part were perhaps never meant for each other.
Likewise, George Hearn does his best in the role of Daddy Warbucks but doesn't quite carry it off. His Warbucks is rather bland and unexciting, an unfortunate contrast to Albert Finney's blustering, bombastic portrayal of the character. But while he did nothing in particular to excite me, neither did he do anything to enrage me—his Daddy Warbucks simply is. Perhaps Hearn's take on Warbucks might have been enhanced by borrowing a little of the ham that the rest of the adults fling around the movie. Certainly, a little more energy in his performance couldn't have hurt, but Hearn is a solid actor, and he forges through with consistency and focus.
Eli Eon is portrayed by Ian McDiarmid, which will mean something to some of those among you. Professor Eon is the creator of Eonite, a miraculous new element that seems to have been created exclusively for the purpose of giving people jobs mass-producing it by doing deep knee bends. Granted, with the soaring unemployment rates of the Great Depression, such a creation would have been a pretty big hit. Beyond the novelty of watching him ham it up throughout the movie, there's nothing really remarkable about McDiarmid's stock-character portrayal of addled scientist Eon, and in fact I must confess that I spent the movie halfway wanting him to drop the goofy act and destroy the inept crooks with a devastating burst of Force lightning.
I don't think that I'm giving anything away by telling you that Joan Collins, as Lady Edwina Hogbottom, is the villainess of the piece. Lady Hogbottom is scheming to use Eonite to power her rocket—I know that sounds vaguely dirty, but she wants to use the rocket to wipe out the entire royal family in one fell swoop and seize the throne. It's kind of like a really abridged version of Kind Hearts and Coronets. Collins seems to be having the most fun in this movie, and why not? She's got all the best lines: "Unhand me, you stupid genius!" Like most of the adult cast, she serves up a healthy dose of ham with her performance, and she makes it go down with grace and comic charm.
The supporting cast is rich and interesting. Crispin Bonham-Carter (Pride and Prejudice) and Perry Benson take what could have been unremarkable henchman parts and bring them to four-color life, creating distinct—if two-dimensional—personalities. Punjab (Antony Zaki) isn't quite as intimidating as he should be (in the strip, he's eight feet tall and not quite as wide as a beer truck). In fact, he's not intimidating at all. But the actor is so likable that this is easily overlooked (just not by me). The Asp (David Tse)—well, you know how I feel about the Asp. You can never get enough Asp. Annie's friends Hannah and Molly provide the necessary additional dose of pint-sized cuteness without going too far overboard; I think I only rolled my eyes twice during the whole picture. In London, the three make friends with the most well-mannered street urchin in the world ("Jolly good!"), played by George Wood, and his large but loving family. And Lady Hogbottom's maid (Jayne Ashbourne) and butler (Ian Redford) provide some additional laughs. In fact, there's a rather cute turn of events at the end of the movie involving Charity the maid that was as delightful as it was unexpected (I won't spoil it for you here—even though the filmmakers did).
The wicked Miss Hannigan is the only real sour note struck by the supporting cast; Monty Python veteran Carol Cleveland plays her without any sort of real menace or threat at all, making the character seem more like a sort of Bizarro Donna Reed than a feared and drunken martinet lording over a seedy slum orphanage. Her part in the movie is mercifully brief.
This movie is as entertaining and amusing as it is insubstantial. It makes no pretense of being anything other than what it is—a family-friendly adventure that everyone can enjoy—and I think it succeeds on that level. But they should have had more of the Asp in it. I should let this go, shouldn't I?
Not guilty. Despite not giving the Asp his props. Okay, okay, I'm done with it.
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