The time seems right to update Annie, the Depression-era orphan who began life as a newspaper comic strip in 1924, conquered Broadway in 1977 and hit the big screen in 1982's "Annie." Through it all, redheaded Annie and her rose-colored world barely changed. Her fairy godfather, Oliver Warbucks, remained a benevolent zillionaire; her dog, Sandy, arfed at her side; the hard-knock orphans of New York City remained uniformly white.
The new "Annie" intends to change all that, beginning with its two black stars. The title role goes to Quvenzhané Wallis, an 11-year-old charmer and Oscar nominee ("Beasts of the Southern Wild"), while Jamie Foxx plays a Warbucksian cellphone magnate, William Stacks. He's running for mayor of present-day New York; Sandy is named for the 2012 hurricane. The original Broadway score is augmented by new tracks from the indie-pop musicians Sia and Greg Kurstin.
All these surface improvements may make Annie's rags-to-riches story more recognizable to today's young viewers. The cast is lively and everyone sings well, including Bobby Cannavale as Guy, Stacks' cynical campaign manager. Cameron Diaz replaces the legendary Carol Burnett as the mean Miss Hannigan and puts her own saucy spin on the role. Why, then, is "Annie" such an underwhelming musical?
For starters, it looks chintzy. The sets are static and unmoving, there are few backup performers and the choreography is virtually nonexistent (the toe-tapping cops don't count). "I Think I'm Gonna Like It Here," Annie's ode to the wonders of Stacks' mansion, feels oddly impoverished: No butlers a-leaping, just Wallis bopping around on a tabletop with Rose Byrne as Grace, Stacks' assistant. Wallis delivers an endearing version of the Sia-Kurstin number "Opportunity," but overall the new songs can't match sparkling Strouse-Charnin originals like "Tomorrow" (here beefed up with an outdated hip-hop rhythm).
Will Gluck directs "Annie" like one of his modestly budgeted comedies ("Friends With Benefits," "Easy A"), chopping scenes together with little attention to visual style or detail. (In one climactic scene, a dozen extras vanish in one shot and reappear in the next.) "Annie" could have breathed fresh life into a beloved character. Instead, the movie feels casually and even carelessly mishandled.