Cameron Diaz, Jamie Foxx, Quvenzhane Wallis, and Rose Byrne in AnnieANNIE

Sony's last-remaining grab for the holiday box office, the much-downloaded reboot of Annie, opened this weekend, and it must be said that as a musical - especially as a musically faithful interpretation of the stage show - it kind of sucks. The choreography's a shambles and the mixing is poor and the original numbers are terrible, while familiar, enjoyable Annie tunes such as "Little Girls" and "Easy Street" are merely sampled, their melodies and lyrics awkwardly woven into new pop and hip-hop arrangements. (Three of the film's myriad producers are Jay-Z and Will and Jada Pinkett Smith, so I guess we should just be grateful that the titular orphan is played by Quvenzhané Wallis and not Willow. Or Jaden.)

Here's the thing, though: If you can ignore the fact that this modernized Annie is a musical, which is surprisingly easy to do, you can still have an awfully good time. Because damn is this movie funny - and not funny in a laughing-at-it way, either. It's certainly not a film to enter with even moderately high expectations. But the cast is incredibly winning and the updates to the material are clever and the jokes are bountiful; it may be a crap musical, but this Annie winds up a pretty awesome Will Gluck comedy, albeit one occasionally interrupted by songs.

My guess is that Gluck won't be hired to direct another musical any time soon. But why the inventive, witty helmer of 2009's wildly underrated male-cheerleader slapstick Fired Up! and 2010's Emma Stone classic Easy A doesn't get more work in Hollywood comedies baffles me. (Maybe it's the fault of Gluck's uncharacteristically meh rom-com Friends with Benefits.) Here, working from a script he co-wrote with Aline Brosh McKenna, Gluck again proves himself wizardly at the breakneck pacing of verbal and visual gags; you barely have time to giggle at an especially inspired joke before two or three more land. Updating Little Orphan Annie's Depression-era saga to present-day Manhattan, Gluck and McKenna deliver all manner of smart, riotous commentary on modern politics, bureaucratic red tape, and the perks and perils of social media, and manage to do so while successfully melding their comic observations with the traditional Annie narrative. That narrative, however, is also one they're frequently happy to toss out the window. Those who worship the stage musical and/or John Huston's beloved, largely inept 1982 movie may well hate what Gluck and McKenna are up to. But for those of us who've pretty much had it up to here with this material, their refusal to treat Annie as sacrosanct, and to instead mess with the formula in playful and unexpected ways, is almost beyond refreshing.

Quvenzhane Wallis and Cameron Diaz in AnnieThe movie opens with a curly-haired redhead named Annie grinning and tap dancing her way through a school presentation while her fellow students groan. Then Quvenzhané Wallis' Annie walks to the front of the class, begins her report on FDR and the New Deal, and wins over the kids with an energetic stomp-and-clap. So purists be warned. But I was with the movie from that first, snarky flourish and never looked back. Beyond the underwhelming tunes, there was no reason to. Playing their outsize comic-strip figures with robust glee, Jamie Foxx, Rose Byrne, Bobby Cannavale, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Stephanie Kurtzuba, and a comically feral Cameron Diaz provide readings as hilarious as most of their dialogue. And while I would've appreciated even one moment from her that boasted the naturalism of her Beasts of the Southern Wild performance, Wallis is a powerhouse of charisma here, and sings with lovely, unforced sweetness and clarity. (The same, sadly, can't be said of Foxx, who's on melisma overdrive, or the others, who sound just like affable non-singers singing.) You may detest the music. You may loathe the changes to the story. You may gulp when a character in this Sony release makes a Kim Jong-il crack. But if your kids are clamoring for you to take them to Annie, think twice about dropping them off and driving away. It's not every day you see Michael J. Fox publicly endorse a mayoral candidate in a campaign commercial, especially when that candidate, you realize, is the guy we're supposed to root against.

 

Martin Freeman in The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five ArmiesTHE HOBBIT: THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES

'Tis the season to be grateful. So as I slogged through the half-hour of setup and the 90-minute battle scene that followed in Peter Jackson's excessively busy, insanely tedious J.R.R. Tolkien finale The Hobbit: Are We Done Yet?, here's what I was most grateful for: the 10 minutes of Smaug, and 30 seconds of Benedict Cumberbatch vocals, before the title card pops up. The narrative drabness at least augmented by handsome production design. The compositional blandness at least augmented, occasionally, by imaginative fight choreography. Martin Freeman's sincerity. Cate Blanchett's bad-assery. Christopher Lee and his Edgar Winter wig. Jackson's ability to still come through with arresting images, such as Orlando Bloom running up a series of collapsing stone blocks, and the sight of a (nearly) deceased Orc gently floating beneath a sheet of ice. And only one ending, and the one you're hoping for, instead of Return of the King's five or six. So thank you, Mr. Jackson, I suppose, for the roughly 18 collective screen hours of Middle Earth. Can you please come back to real Earth now?

 

Follow Mike on Twitter at Twitter.com/MikeSchulzNow.

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