Ok call me sappy, call me silly, but I love Annie. My conflicted taste in different film genres has been known to gravitate towards the old fashion musicals of the 50s and 60s and Disney’s version of the Broadway musical Annie, filmed in 1999 in that very same style is at the top of my list.
The Broadway production hit which opened in the 1970’s was one of the last successful conventional book musicals which included an appealing and memorable score by Charles Strouse with lyrics by Martin Charnin. But the chief reason why the original show was such a hit was due to its basicly emotional underpinnings. Orphan Annie believes that her parents are still alive and dreams that some day they will return to save her from orphanage hell and the evil child hater and caretaker, Miss Hannigan. When Annie is brought to multi-millionaire Oliver Warbucks's mansion for Christmas as a publicity stunt, she transforms the life of all around her and ultimately finds a real home.
The great director John Huston (The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and The African Queen) , but highly inexperienced with the musical genre failed to do justice to this material when adapting Annie for the screen in 1982. His approach was misguided focusing more on all the wrong ideas from Harold Gray's comic strip Little Orphan Annie as opposed to staying fathfull to the Broadway book by Thomas Meehan. Houston’s Annie was a gargantuan production, filled with poorly choreographed musical numbers that resembled more like gymnastic competitions than inspired song and dance routines. It also had an abundant amount of phony sentimentality and uninspired and not very funny slapstick comedy. The movie proved to be a financial and artistic disaster.
Rob Marshall’s 1999 adaptation of Annie not only corrects all the flaws that Houston’s Annie had but it is possibly one of the best cinematic adaptations of a Broadway show ever made. Marshall who recently brought to the screen the film version of another Broadway hit, the Best Film Academy Award winner Chicago, focuses on the character’s genuine emotions and the emotional aspects of the story, all of it supported by wonderfully accomplished performances by his entire cast.
Alicia Morton is not only convincing in the title role but she has a real non showy approach that comes across as more genuine and more engaging than Houston’s Baby June-like Annie back in 1982. Morton's voice is strong while simultaneously sweet and conrolled. She doesn't sound like an apprentice belter as many stage Annies have come across in previous years. She doesn't go for cheap Shirley Temple tricks, instead she brings an amazing emotional depth that seduces. When she delivers the show’s signature song "Tomorrow", a song that has been spoofed in the past for its sappy optimism, it becomes a heartbreaking, chilling and ultimately moving anthem focused on her optimistic innocence with the irony of a snowy, decayed and Depression struck New York landscape in the background.
Kathy Bates, as Miss Hannigan comes as the biggest surprise. We’ve come to know her as a magnificent Oscar winning actress but who knew that she could not only belt a tune, but strut, shake, kick and dance with such skill and joy. Watch her perform in the musical number “Easy Street” in which she steals the spotlight from such Broadway pros as Alan Cumming and Kristine Chernoweth.
Victor Garber has a wonderful tenor voice and brings poignancy to his Oliver Warbucks and Audra McDonald (Ragtime) uses her spectacular singing voice and elegance to the role of Grace, Warbuck's secretary.
Which leads me to the director Rob Marshall, the true genius behind this production. Marshall truly understands the pace and rhythms of cinematic musicals. His camera always knows how to move around a musical number, allowing for the choreography to lead, while at the same time making it dynamically visual. Very impressive is also his work with the chorus line of orphans in which they come off as kids having fun rather than overly trained little gymnasts as in the case of Houston’s approach.
The film has many showstoppers, the most memorable set pieces being, the “NYC” number, which climaxes with a brilliant cameo by Andrea McArdle, the original Broadway Annie, looking great and in top form. “Easy Street” is a particularly spectacular ensemble job in which Bates, Cumming and Chernoweth sing and dance on a NY street about being evil and “You Are Never Fully Dressed Without A Smile” in which the talented orphans give a new meaning to the phrase "kick line".
Don’t let the fact that the film was originally filmed for television fool you. This is a dazzling work of pure cinema with great production values, excellent performances and on target direction. Rob Marshall’s Annie is probably one of the best musical adaptations of a stage musical ever filmed. Its a grand entertainment for both children and adults.