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Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The 1981 Annie has never been considered the best musical ever made, but it's been very successful in television syndication. Aileen Quinn is fine as the orphan tyke, a role that could easily have come off as annoying.
John Huston was chided for putting his talent on cruise control for this one, although there's nothing wrong with his direction. It's precisely the oversized kind of show that Huston avoided for most of his career, and if he saw fit to take on a profitable assignment at his age, I say good for him. Huston apparently took an active role in preproduction, especially the choosing of the little actress to play Annie.
Albert Finney makes an imposing Daddy Warbucks, giving the film's light satire some sly twists. The original Warbucks in the comics was Big Money personified and this incarnation preserves his loyal opposition to The New Deal. As in Metropolis, little Annie provides the 'heart' to reconcile opposite poles in society, in this case Democrats and Republicans instead of workers and bosses. The movie script invents an action climax that enlarges the roles of Warbucks' Third World servants Asp and Punjab, masters of martial arts and Eastern hocus-pocus as conceived in the xenomorphic thirties. Punjab is Geoffrey Holder from Live and Let Die, playing an Indian guru who casts spells and levitates objects at will.
Evn though Carol Burnett's playing can't be faulted, her Miss Hannigan is miscast. Her natural warmth subverts the character's intended malice, and indeed things are shifted to give Mrs. Hannigan an 11th hour change of heart. Even Bernadette Peters is somewhat wasted (when not singing and dancing) - we like her people too much as well. We sense from the start that Burnett can't end up a villain; only Tim Curry is appropriately black-hearted.
The songs and dancing are fine yet nothing stands out as exceptional beyond Aileen Quinn's touching voice on Maybe and Tomorrow. The orphans kick up a storm in Hard Knock Life but as an ensemble are borderline grating (Oh my goodness! Oh my goodness!). The musical numbers are all handsomely shot and active but only a couple begin to catch fire. We just don't get excited along with the Warbucks servants at the prospect of Annie staying a week, and the big trip out to the movies plays like a lot of padding. Most of the sentimental scenes, on the other hand, work like a charm. Bits with President Roosevelt (Edward Herrmann) singing, and Warbucks getting warm and fuzzy over his new adoptee are unexpected highlights.
Disney made a TV version in 1999 with good music and dancing and had an Annie who matched Aileen Quinn in cuteness - the stage Annie Andrea McArdle had a performing role in it. Rob Marshall of Chicago renown directed. The TV version would have matched this one, if it weren't so rushed - editorially, it hustles along as if ashamed to pause for a second on anything.
Columbia TriStar's DVD of Annie is a big mistake from the get-go. This reviewer made the same mistake many fans are bound to make, ordering it on the assumption that it would have a widescreen transfer. What we get is a pan-scan abomination that's grainy and lacking in color. It freely squeezes shots as needed to make giant rooms readable on the narrow screen, and almost every setup crops away interesting elements or characters. The larger musical numbers, already a three-ring circus of dancing bodies, now look like total chaos. In wide shots of New York, we now concentrate on individual buildings, seeing many modern ones that couldn't possibly be from 1932.
Anyone needing a comparison can check the disc's extras, which include a nicely produced featurette where the adult Aileen Quinn reminisces about her movie experience. It contains some well chosen behind-the-scenes and audition clips, but it's formatted in 16:9. When it shows clips from the movie, they're properly letterboxed in 16:9 Panavision. We see twice as many orphans dancing in Hard Knock Life, decent compositions in the exteriors, and new characters we didn't even know were in scenes. The transfer is sharper and more colorful as well.
Included as extras in this 'Special Anniversary Edition' are some quiz games and a music video of the girl group Play covering Hard Knock Life. It's pretty dreary.
Columbia could have learned the lesson of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. MGM took all kinds of heat for releasing a really ugly pan-scan of that film, and only last Christmas made amends with a handsome special edition. Musicals and kids films aren't just for tots ... and this disc is little more than a headache.
Bill Chambers of Film Freak Central tells me that "Columbia did previously release a 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen DVD, but unfortunately it's occasionally zoomboxed within the black mattes (at least, early copies were), insomuch as the top of Ann Reinking's face is cropped literally from the nose up in one scene where she's singing with Aileen Quinn. (Still, it's preferable to the pan-and-scan version more often than not.) The original disc contains a pretty bad 2.0 surround mix to boot."
I didn't see Annie on the big screen and was looking forward to being able to evaluate it, something that this pan-scan botch makes impossible. I'll gladly try again when the studio sees fit to give it a real DVD release.