Every version of Annie since the Broadway original has aimed younger and younger. John Huston’s 1982 movie cut the child-confounding songs “We’d Like to Thank You, Herbert Hoover” and “New Deal for Christmas,” and added two ditties about Annie’s dog.
This new flick scraps the 1933 setting altogether and plops Annie into contemporary Harlem, here a sunny bodega playground. Now, in “You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile,” your clothes aren’t “Beau Brummell–y,” but “Chanel, Gucci.” Producers Jay-Z and Will and Jada Pinkett Smith must have beamed when they discovered that rhyme — and, to be fair, their three children are fashion-forward. There’s a sense that neither they nor director Will Gluck know what normal kids — the kind they need to buy tickets to Annie — think is cool.
Instead, once again this is an Annie for adults, only now the spin is less “Remember the social-welfare lessons of the Great Depression?” and more “Hey, rich people are nice, too.” This Annie is so modern that the girl’s benefactor, Will Stacks (Jamie Foxx), is a telecommunications baron running for mayor.
It presumes that children care a great deal about cellphone towers, political campaigns, and Twitter. Still, Quvenzhané Wallis, as Annie, is raw, charismatic, alive, and unpredictable: In her biggest solo number, every time Gluck cuts to Annie singing on a stage, it’s a crapshoot whether she’ll be preening like Billie Holiday or rocking jerkily side to side like Chuck E. Cheese. In short, she’s a child. The question is if this musical has any genuine interest in one.