See It Instead: Annie
Time once again to scour the bargain bin and bring you excellent films from yesteryear. When you want the big time feel of the theater without the big time price of a 3D, surround sound, feel-around butter flavored blockbuster, turn to See It Instead for three quality flicks that deserve your attention instead!
Columbia picture’s remake of the musical Annie, based upon a Broadway play, which was in turn based upon a 1920’s comic strip, hits theaters this weekend. Despite the above sentence hinting at a tired re-tread in the current Hollywood fashion, Columbia has “modernized” the play by changing many of the circumstances in the play and, notably, for incorporating many actors and actresses of color in the starring roles.
I wish that telling a universally appealing story to modern audiences while avoiding an all-white cast was not considered edgy or bold, but I am actually excited by the changes to the traditional play, not only for being inclusive, but for revising many of the roles to be more human. On paper, the changes to the story seem to make the “villains” more complex, the good guys less one dimensional, and Annie, herself, more nuanced and in control of her situation. On the screen…who knows? So just to hedge your bets (or if you generally avoid Hollywood musicals) why not see these other melodious offerings instead?
The Serious Pick: Annie (1982)
The Movie: This film has perhaps not aged particularly well. Many of the roles are borderline racist these days, and the source material depended firmly upon memories of The Great Depression, and even though the film jettisoned many of the songs and scenes definitely attached to that time, the story of robber barons, homeless shanties, and mass poverty are inseparably linked to this time period. I mean, how relevant were orphanages and Hoover-villes to the mainstream in 1980? Nostalgia is the grit of this film, and modern audiences are nearly twice removed from the action of the play.
Despite all of that, the film manages to be oddly timeless, mostly because the characters are such one-sided archetypes. Instead of being a weakness, they allow viewers to have a box-score of the players without actually relating to their temporal roles. You know who “selfish rich guy,” “plucky youngster,” and “devious scam artist” are, without having to know much about the social settings of the era. It also doesn’t hurt that the meat of the comedy is thrust upon the shoulders of two amazing comedians: Carol Burnett as the slave-driving orphanage owner, and Tim Curry as her ne’er-do-well younger brother.
The Music: It’s a Broadway play that has lasted forever. You’re going to find songs here that you don’t even know you know. “Hard Knock Life” has made multiple appearances in recent hip-hop memory. The anthem “Tomorrow” is deservedly well loved, and truly well done by young actress Aileen Quinn, who has quite a set of pipes. Some of the fare may seem dated, but not for lack of musical and lyrical quality.
The Lighthearted Pick: Oliver and Company (1988)
The Movie: Disney took a break from ripping pages out of a fairy-tale primer in order to tackle an animated version of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist. If you’ve read Dickens’, you’re aware that his idea of a happy ending is not dying of syphilis. Add to that a story about thievery, child-slavery, and the crippling divide between have’s and have-not’s, and this was a rather bold move by Disney (perhaps abetted by the success of Annie in 1982 and their own films about orphans: Pete’s Dragon (1977) and The Rescuers (again, 1977…is there something I don’t know about an orphan population explosion in the late 70’s and early 80’s?)
The film tackles the above thorny issues in typical Disney style: Puppies and Kitties! The cast is almost all animal, except for Fagan, the orphan wrangler/thief master played by Dom DeLuise. The animation is signature Disney, but it does incorporate a bit more expressive body language, of the style that would become the backbone of The Lion King’s swagger. It’s more morally mature than much iconic Disney, but Disney in the 80’s was willing to take a lot more risks (I’m looking at you, Black Cauldron.)
The Music: Come on. This is Disney. Their whole MO is to rip of a well known story and then wow you into submission with show-tunes that will never ever leave your brain. The last thing most of my generation will remember before shuffling off this mortal coil will probably be some damn song number from a Disney film. They cast Billy Joel as a main character in this film (as well as Bette Midler,) and had both Huey Lewis and Barry Manilow add their weight to the soundtrack. They fucking crushed the musical aspect of this film, is what I’m saying.
The Unconventional Pick: The Court Jester (1956)
The Movie: This is one of the funniest comedies of all time.
If not the funniest.
There, I said it.
Swords, chivalry, feats of daring-do, songs, and a royal orphan all add up to one ridiculous adventure for our fool of a hero, Danny Kaye. A poor traveling actor, Kaye is taken in by the Black Fox, a Robin Hood stand-in who is the sworn protector of the crown prince, an infant whose throne has been stolen by the evil King Roderick. Chosen to escort the child to safety, since he is such a buffoon that no-one would credibly believe he is part of the loyalist resistance, Kaye and his able female guardian (Glynis Johns) take the child away from the fighting…but are quickly picked up by the king’s guard after Kaye attempts to play the hero by impersonating the king’s jester (who turns out to be a secret assassin.) A comedy of errors ensues, where nobody is sure of who the daring Kaye actually is: some believe him to be the accomplished assassin-jester, some to be the Black Fox himself, and many believe him to be the biggest idiot who ever lived. The last group is mostly right.
Kaye is a dynamo. A self made actor of the best stripe (he grew up impoverished and sang for his supper, taking any role he could, often learning the skills needed on stage,) he sings, dances, tumbles, woos and fights like ten men rolled into one. His fight scenes, often against accomplished thespian Basil Rathbone and choreographed by film legend Ralph Faulkner, are noted not only for their brilliant choreography, but for the constant comedy Kaye effortlessly weaved into them. Using his gift of facial expression and lanky body, Kaye flailed about the screen, all while singing, dancing and fighting. If you haven’t seen Kaye work, this is most likely his best film…though they are all great.
The Music: The music is just fair-to-middling in this film, which is a damn shame since Danny Kaye had proven to be extremely capable of truly mesmerizing show-tunes; White Christmas, Hans Christen Anderson, and The Secretary General being excellent examples of his acumen. The opening and send off tune is enjoyable but trite (“Life Could not Better Be,”) and only in a few pieces does it shine (“Outfox the Fox” being the best.) The voice talent is certainly there, but the number of great songs is sorely lacking, despite the overall sound work being very well done.