Annie (Columbia Pictures/Sony Pictures Releasing, PG)

annie2014 sqGluck and his team deserve credit for making a good mainstream musical, and also a solid family film for the holidays.

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If you’re like me and watch the trailer for the new film adaptation of Annie, you’ll be inclined not to see the movie; the trailer is terrible. The reality of the movie, thankfully, is much better. It definitely has its share of faults, which the trailer is too quick to highlight as if they’re positives, but the whole of the picture works better than one might expect based on that abysmal teaser.

Really, this shouldn’t be surprising. Annie is one of the better modern musicals (John Huston already made a good movie musical of this material in 1982, of course), and the film stars Quvenzhané Wallis in her first lead role since Beasts of the Southern Wild, which I named as the best film of 2012. It’s worth seeing if only to see how she fares in her first big studio, mainstream title role.

And she fares well. Here, she’s playing cute and cherubic much more directly than she did in Beasts, and she does so convincingly, despite the difference in styles: Beasts was magical realism and Annie glossy family musical. Indeed, the trio of the film’s good guys—Annie, Will Stacks (Jamie Foxx), and Stacks’ VP Grace (Rose Byrne)—are uniformly charming, and have good chemistry with one another.

Which is important, because if they didn’t sell that chemistry, this film wouldn’t work. Of course Annie is the story of a foster child who is taken in by a moneyed would-be politician Stacks as a political maneuver, but she predictably wins him over and teaches him a lot about life. It’s like a coming of age movie, but the person who comes of age is the guardian, not the child. Grace is around as a mother figure mostly; she’s less in need of having her heart warmed, but her presence is important all the same.

Where the film falters is in its villains: Cameron Diaz as Miss Hartigan, who is Annie’s foster mother as the film opens; and Bobby Cannavale as Guy, Stacks’ political strategist. I sometimes like Diaz and almost always like Cannavale, but both are insufferable here, playing about as broadly as I’ve seen in a recent movie. I get that Annie is shooting for a family audience and over-the-top villains often play well in that format, but here they’re so far gone as to nearly ruin all of their scenes.

The film’s songs are mostly muted; when watching the film, they don’t really feel like showstoppers, but you’ll find yourself humming for the rest of the day all the same. (“Tomorrow” is the song most people know, but I’m partial to “It’s the Hard-Knock Life.”) Though it might seem strange that the numbers are so low-key, it’s probably a savvy move. Nearly every Hollywood musical since Moulin Rouge! in 2001 seems to be going for bigger and stupider and gaudier than the last, so at least Annie doesn’t smear it in your face like a lot of others do.

The screenplay, by Will Gluck (who also directed) and Aline Brosh McKenna, rolls in some modern political commentary, a lot of which works (this is a film in which the very rich come face to face with the very poor, after all), and some satire/parody stuff (mostly aimed at Hollywood itself), which doesn’t work so well. (Interestingly, there’s also a stab at Kim Jong-Il, in this, a film from Sony that isn’t The Interview.) Even so, Gluck and his team deserve credit for making a good mainstream musical, of which there have been too few lately (not that there have been too few musicals; there’ve been too few good ones), and also a solid family film for the holidays. | Pete Timmermann

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