For about 15 minutes, the new “Annie” looks like it might turn into something. After briefly teasing us with a frizzy carrot-top (Taylor Richardson) right out of our collective pop unconsciousness, the film brings on “Annie B” — Annie Bennett (Quvenzhané Wallis), a bright-faced African-American kid who turns a school report on FDR into a classroom jam, then heads north to Harlem cheering up everyone she meets. It’s a prettified Harlem, with the film’s title drawn on the sidewalk in rainbow chalk, but in its kid-friendly way “Annie” appears poised to acknowledge the gap between rich and poor in a way that the Depression-era comic strip’s tough-nosed creator, Harold Gray, might recognize.
That sense of creative rejuvenation doesn’t last long. Directed by Will Gluck (“Friends With Benefits,” “Easy A”) from a script by him and Aline Brosh McKenna, the new “Annie” tries to update the 1978 Broadway musical warhorse with ethnic diversity, big stars, revamped characterizations, and watery R&B arrangements of the songs. The unforced cleverness of the opening scenes gives way to lazy plotting, awkwardly staged musical numbers, and car chases. By the end, the movie resembles just another formulaic, family-friendly piece of product, one the kids will enjoy and you’ll endure as it goes in the DVD player for the 40th time.
Maybe you’re asking whether Quvenzhané Wallis can act or hold a movie on her own. Wrong question: She already did that, at age 6, in “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” But “Annie” is a studio confection rather than a tiny indie, and we’re used to seeing grim little troupers play Annie, belting out “Tomorrow” with lungs Ethel Merman might envy. Wallis, now 11, has presence, but it’s the untrained presence of a natural; the “Tomorrow” sequence, here an inner sung monologue unfolding as Annie walks past city windows that reflect her pensive state, is shockingly low-key and, honestly, the better for it.
As the movie goes on, though, and the silliness piles up around her, Wallis’s gifts recede from view. In this version of the tale, Annie is one of a group of orphaned girls who live in the cramped apartment of their foster mother, Colleen Hannigan (Cameron Diaz), a former backup singer (“I was almost one of Hootie’s Blowfish”) who comes across as a whiny, bitter meth-head. Daddy Warbucks is now Will Stacks (Jamie Foxx), a cellphone billionaire running for mayor of New York (against a Koch-like fussbudget named, for reasons that escape us all, Harold Gray). Stacks has an uptight British No. 2, Grace (Rose Byrne), who secretly adores him, and a campaign manager, Guy (Bobby Cannavale), who will do anything to get his boss elected, including moving Annie into Stacks’s super-luxe apartment after he saves her from getting hit by a car.
First problem: Not enough people here can sing. Foxx can, in a soulful if distractingly high tenor, and Wallis can — enough. But Diaz and Byrne have insecure voices that sound like they’ve been heavily auto-tuned, and as for Cannavale . . . no. Just no. The familiar songs from the stage musical have had their four-square backbones removed and replaced with lightly funkified treatments by pop tunesmiths Sia and Greg Kurston; some survive, others don’t. New songs written by the two for the movie include “Opportunity,” which already has a Golden Globe nomination and is pre-fabricated drek that sounds like everything else on Top 40 radio.
The biggest laughs, surprisingly, come from Stephanie Kurtzuba in the small but juicy role of a Russian-accented social services worker; she’s always in the background of scenes, hamming enthusiastically. Foxx is skilled enough and Wallis artlessly honest enough for the scenes between Annie and the high-maintenance, germaphobic Stacks to brim with real tenderness. But that’s where any genuine feeling stops.
The film’s approach to modernizing “Annie” is strained at best, pandering at worst, with call-outs to Twitter, a canine Sandy named after the hurricane, and a cameo appearance by Rihanna as a sea siren (in a cute film-within-the-film that serves as a platform for another new song). This updating ensures only that the latest “Annie” will be outdated more quickly than the others. The movie may divert your kids today, but don’t be shocked if they’ve forgotten about it by tomorrow. It’s only a day away.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.