Growing up, I wasn't all about the family friendly stuff. At a young age, I instead familiarized myself with the Star Wars Trilogy, Alien, Predator and The Terminator. I mean, I was fond of The Wizard of Oz and Saturday morning cartoons and all, but I wanted nothing to do with cutesy musicals like Mary Poppins, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang or Annie. Yes, it was foolish of me to pass judgment on such films without even giving them a shot, but what can I say? I was a young boy, and I was far more interested in cyborgs and creatures from outer space. Eventually, I came to my senses and began incorporating all sorts of films into my viewing habits, and got around to watching Annie about 10 years ago. At the time, I didn't think it was very good, but I also didn't think it was bad. The story didn't grab me, I didn't care about the outcome and certain segments dragged, but I still found the film to be fun nonetheless. The music was memorable and the costumes and sets were often colorful. With Annie finally being released on Blu-ray, I wanted to take another stab at it. My tastes have refined since my previous viewing, and sometimes a film I didn't think was particularly good reveals itself to be a masterpiece... but sometimes they still end up circling the drain. Considering Annie is considered by many to be a classic, I had to put this film to the test - Is it the ho-hum experience I remember, or something more?
This film is an adaptation of the Tony Award winning musical, which in and of itself is an adaptation of the Little Orphan Annie comic strip. It takes place in New York City during the Great Depression, and Annie - a lively, charismatic little girl - as the comic strip implies, currently resides in an orphanage. The place is a real dump, too - The lack of decoration or color inside drains hope and energy from the orphans, and the supervisor, Miss Hannigan, is a miserable drunk that seemingly takes pleasure in dehumanizing the children. Of course, she's had no such luck with Annie, who despite living a 'hard knock life', remains blissfully optimistic. She believes her parents may have left her there by accident (really?), so she attempts an escape to reunite with them. Miss Hannigan thwarts the escape however, and punishes all the orphans to keep them from getting similar ideas. At this point, it seems Annie's optimism is foolish at best, but her positive outlook is rewarded when Grace Farrell, secretary to billionaire Oliver Warbucks, comes looking for an orphan to stay at his mansion for a week. The motive? "Daddy" Warbucks needs an act of generosity to improve his image with the public. Against Miss Hannigan's wishes, Grace picks Annie to be their temporary guest. It isn't long before the redheaded orphan charms everyone on staff at the mansion, including a reluctant Warbucks, who eventually decides to adopt her. Annie expresses the desire to find her real parents, so he instead goes on the radio and offers a $50,000 reward in hopes it entices them to come forward. The end? Not by a long shot - Miss Hannigan comes up with a scheme to take Annie and the money. When Warbucks realizes all too late that he's been duped, he goes after Hannigan and her hired henchmen. This all culminates to a final act that's filled with both suspense and excitement, leaving the audience to wonder if the 'sun will come out tomorrow' for the endearing orphan or not.
As I've said, my taste in entertainment is far more broad than it used to be, and nowadays I actually enjoy musicals. I've familiarized myself with the stage version of Annie over the years, so I can now notice plenty of variations between the film and what was originally conceived for the stage. The most obvious difference to note is that certain songs have been omitted, which I don't really consider to be that much of a blasphemy. After all, musicals are a bit longer than what filmgoers are used to seeing on the big screen, so cuts or revisions are often made to tailor to their expectations. Instead of leaving well enough alone, the director, John Huston, decided to bring four new songs into the mix. This is where I start to have major problems with the film as a whole.
Let me begin to make my point by asking a question - "What should any song worth its salt do for a musical?" It should be entertaining, of course, but it needs to contribute some progression to the story. With inclusions like "Dumb Dog" and "Let's Go to the Movies" however, all they're doing is continually stalling things so they can up the cute factor. More than that, they actually rob Annie of some important context. The end result? The characters never really seem to connect and the pacing is far too choppy. I'm not opposed to a musical breaking the two hour mark (on film), but Annie probably would have fared better if these four new songs weren't included at all (or better yet, if they didn't omit the other original songs at all).
The second thing about Annie that left a sour taste in my mouth this time around, is that the characters are far more stereotypical than even their comic book counterparts. Miss Hannigan is a bit of a sex-obsessed alcoholic, but she's conveyed to the audience here as a real dink. "Daddy" Warbucks is a billionaire, so the filmmakers dumbed his character down - Now, he's an eccentric man that yells to get whatever he wants... you know, because that's what all rich folk do, right? Miss Hannigan's henchmen are even worse, as they come across like a couple of villains in a vintage Looney Tunes short. Last but not least, Annie herself has been sanitized to a certain degree, tweaked to be more cutesy and loveable than ever before.
In short, the filmmakers have entirely missed the point of the musical. They apparently saw productions like Annie to be an exercise in entertaining the masses with catchy songs and mesmerizing dance routines only, completely neglecting to notice that even so-so musicals have a bit more plot and character development. Looking up some info on Wikipedia after watching the film, the reason for this finally comes into focus - the director had never tackled a musical before Annie. It explains everything, doesn't it? The one-dimensional characters, the long drags throughout the film, the lack of focus on a layered plot... is it really any wonder why I thought the film wasn't so good ten years ago? I have a lot of appreciation for John Huston as a director, but attempting to transfer Annie to the big screen wasn't one of his better accomplishments.
So, I clearly prefer the stage version of Annie. That being said, the film adaptation still manages to be entertaining. I know that sounds crazy when considering all of my criticisms up to this point, but if you watch this film as its own beast and forget about the comparisons, there's some appreciable qualities to be found. The bottom line is that it still works as a toe-tapping musical, and there's nothing wrong with anyone who wants to sit down for a couple of hours, shut down their brain and enjoy the song and dance routines for what they are - Pure fun. In this respect, it's hard not to have a good time with Annie. What really helps outside of the classic music numbers, isn't the direction (surprise, surprise), but rather the involvement of the stellar cast. Aileen Quinn is everything that Annie was supposed to be (in the film) - She's spunky yet endearing, thanks to balanced doses of wit, heart and charisma. Speaking of charisma, Albert Finney is a pleasure to watch as Oliver Warbucks. I don't agree with how the filmmakers changed the character, but it's Finney's acting alone that lends Mr. Warbucks any realistic qualities (and that couldn't have been an easy task). Carol Burnett is the perfect fit for Miss Hannigan - Again, my disagreement with the filmmaker's take aside, the orphanage supervisor is a kooky, mean spirited drunk. That undoubtedly required the talents of an actress that had mastered the timing and physical aspects of comedy, and who was better than Carol Burnett? She was the dream billing they needed, and her portrayal of Hannigan seemed effortless. The supporting cast - Tim Curry ("Rooster" Hannigan), Bernadette Peters (Rooster's girlfriend), Geoffrey Holder (Punjab) and Ann Reinking (Grace Farrell) - were just as key in making the film adaptation worth my while.
So, I guess my final conclusion is similar to the way this review began - I didn't think it was very good, but I also didn't think it was that bad. The story still failed to grab me, I didn't care too much about the outcome and certain segments dragged, but I still found Annie to be fun nonetheless. If you're a fan of the Tony Award winning musical, then you're going to want to go into this film with a blank slate. Check your expectations at the door and take it for what it is, and you'll have a shot at finding this adaptation to be an entertaining addition to the genre.
I wasn't sure how well Annie would have looked in HD, as it could have been a quick cash-in attempt for the 30th anniversary, but then I saw this was a Sony Pictures release and my skepticism subsided. They've got a great record thus far on the format, and Annie is no exception.
The 1080p, AVC encoded transfer (2.40:1) is, in a word, great. For starters, contrast and black levels are immaculate - Whites never look too hot and there's no blooming present. Blacks are inky while retaining the minor details within. Colors are also brilliantly replicated. That is, they're consistently natural and never look over-saturated. Skin tones are pleasant 98% of the time, although they can look just a tad on the warm side on occasion. Sharpness is impressive enough, too. Don't expect the video to look as sharp as a recent Hollywood blockbuster, but it's clear that this transfer and encode do the source justice and then some. Detail is decent although again, it's not as fine as a recent release might be. That's not to say that any digital scrubbing has been done, because the exact opposite is true - The grain has been flawlessly preserved, so those afraid of DNR on catalog titles have nothing to worry about. You are definitely not missing out on any of the details the master would have offered.
As I said, this release looks great. I was too young to see this in theaters, but I would guess that Annie looks as pristine as it ever could. On top of the excellent contrast, sharpness and color, there's also no edge enhancement or digital anomalies to complain about. The only faults that you might pick up on throughout the 127 minute runtime appear to be inherent to the original photography. Sony has once again slammed another catalog title out of the park. Despite my reservations about the film itself, Annie fans will have a lot to sing about.
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track is equally impressive. I half expected the soundtrack to sound a little flat, but I was taken aback during the opening song. The orchestra plays across the entire surround stage with accurate dynamics, and is an enveloping experience in and of itself. Singing comes from the front of course, but there are also times when multiple people singing a chorus comes across the rears quite lively. The dialogue is always crisp and clear, and never sounds harsh or tinny. The LFE is always appropriate for the music, yet never overstated. The bass blends in seamlessly. I wish there was more to say, but much like the video, there's really nothing to complain about. It's a shame that Sony has taken a back seat to putting out catalog titles, because their efforts continually prove to be worth every penny they ask.
-My Hollywood Adventure with Aileen Quinn - The star of the film joins us to discuss how she got into entertainment, landed the lead in Annie, and discusses how her life had changed as a result. It's only 12 minutes in length, but includes old family photos, old television interviews and more. It's a shame there isn't a better 'behind-the-scenes' supplement on this disc (such as a commentary), but it's still an intriguing piece to watch.
-Musical Performance of "It's the Hard-Knock Life" by Play - I've never heard of 'Play' before now, and it seems this pop group is comprised of teenage girls. They're dressed in teeny pop fashion, have a ton of make-up on and look too clean and happy to be singing about a 'hard knock life'. What's so hard about what they're going through? They broke a nail? Some people really don't think about their image versus the context of the song they're actually covering. That would be like The Spice Girls covering Metallica's Nothing Else Matters, you know? Skip this.
-Sing-Along with Annie! - This supplement is self explanatory. Just know that you can either select to watch the entire film with the sing-along feature - which is just the words at the bottom of the screen being highlighted as the words are sung - or, you can choose any of the songs individually.
-Original Trailers and TV Spots
In the end, how you'll feel about Annie is going to depend on a few things - If you're a fan of the musical, you're going to have to check your expectations at the door. If you can't stand a musical that stops the story to present you with songs that do nothing to progress the story, then you should proceed with caution. Everyone else? Well, as far as I'm concerned, Annie is an average effort - It's isn't good, but it isn't bad either. The entire 127 minute runtime seemingly promises something greater, but greatness never comes. What saves this film is undoubtedly its magnificent cast, as everyone in both main and supporting roles are entertaining enough to keep the film afloat. My opinions on the film aside, the A/V presentation on this disc is top notch, but the extras are pretty weak. Annie might not be my favorite musical, but I know a lot of people feel differently and would probably expect more out of this 30th Anniversary Sing-Along Edition. Rent It.