Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Some unsolicited advice for Will Smith: Great idea, right Annie, but there's a better Annie

For some reason or other my dad always found time to read the comics to me when I was little. Or at least that's how I remember it.  Quite possibly he didn't always have time, maybe sometimes my mother read them to me, but my memory of being ages 4-7 or so, after I learned to follow a story from day to day, but before I began to be able to read them myself, is of sitting on my father's lap while he pointed to each word balloon, thought balloon, or caption, and read me through every wonderful bit of Pogo, Peanuts, Steve Canyon, and Rip Kirby, and every dumb and bland second of Beetle Bailey and The Family Circus, variously in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Youngstown Vindicator, Toledo Blade, and Detroit Free Press as work dragged him around the Midwest*.  I'm not quite sure when or where he acquired his comics habit. He's still around. I'll have to remember to ask him. But he was a big fan of the comics in general as well as of particular comics.
I'm talking about the daily and Sunday newspaper strips here; Dad regarded comic books with considerable suspicion and my mother was pretty blunt about discouraging any interest in them. Ma was neutral-to-favorable on newspaper strips; Dad adored them and shared them with me, so that even today, on the rare occasions when I pick up a newspaper, that's almost always where I turn first and very often all I read.
If I started listing the strips we liked and what we liked about them, well, that would be a whole long blog post right there, and what I'm actually trying to do here is take a little break before plunging back into Singapore Math Figured Out for Parents, which is progressing nicely, thank you, and needs to progress its way off my desk and into the market, but I'm a wee bit burned out right now. So let's cut right to it: one strip Dad and I both loved was Little Orphan Annie, which had already been around for decades at that time (in fact for several years before my father was born).
Annie was the quintessential Adventurous Kid with Backup, a type that I'm a bit surprised I can't find in TVTropes.**  She was a perpetually something-less-than-16-and-something-more-than-10-year-old orphan, and the ward of Oliver "Daddy" Warbucks, gazillionaire munitions maker. 
The basic plot of most Annie sagas began when one way or another she and her faithful dog Sandy were forced out of the protective embrace of Warbucks Manor. Daddy would go off on a business trip and someone would toss the kid out on the street, she'd be in a plane or ship that crashed, she'd get kidnapped, she'd run away because someone was threatening her to blackmail Daddy, it pretty much didn't matter what the pretext was. She'd be unable to get back to Warbucks Manor right away for some equally hokey reason, apparently never having figured out how to reverse charges on a long distance call. Then she'd get involved in some way of working her way home that would connect her into the lives of ordinary people, who generally liked her guts and smarts (and never happened to notice newspaper stories about missing orphan, huge reward).   Inevitably  it would turn out that these good ordinary people were being oppressed or menaced by gangsters, Nazi agents, Communist spies, drug lords, crooked union thugs (Harold Gray, who created the strip and wrote it for more than 40 years, was somewhere to the right of Herbert Hoover), or whatever.
Bravely and pluckily trying to stand up for the common people herself,  Annie would get in further and further over her head. Then just when it looked like Annie was doomed and Sandy was fated for medical experiments, Daddy Warbucks himself would show up with one of those private armies that gazillionaires have waiting around to rescue orphans.*** Or, slightly more often, Punjab or The Asp, Daddy's Indian and East Asian (respectively) bodyguard/fixers would turn up and work some combination of martial arts and mysterious magic of the East type stuff.  Then Annie would go home to count her trust fund for a week or so before she'd be off on another adventure.
Annie wasn't the first such character and she surely wasn't the last. She has close cousins and/or linear descendants in Tom Swift Jr., Jack Armstrong, Trixie Belden, Jonny Quest, Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, Tintin, Huey-Dewey-Louie, and Kim Possible,**** just to mention the ones I'm acquainted with and can think of off the top of my head. The basic brew for "Adventurous Kid with Backup" is that the boy or girl is:
• old enough to get away on his or her own,
•moderately improbably skilled; not a superhero but definitely an early Eagle Scout
•possessed of limitless luck&pluck and a do-or-die attitude
•supported by a usually invisible but very real gigantic backup team
Now, when I was a little kid, Annie was about as comforting a story as there was, at least once I caught the basic rhythm and understood that Annie and Sandy always found their way home, safe and sound and apparently without PTSD. Just when things looked awful Punjab would burst through a wall, or The Asp would walk into the room having silently knocked out twenty goons, or helicopters with the Warbucks logo would descend. Annie's combination of good heart and common sense and courage got her as far as it could. Then just at the moment when it turned out the Forces of Evil really were too big for a small girl and her dog, the craft, power, strength, wisdom, whatever was needed, of the most important adults in her life would come in and straighten it out. She'd go home a bit stronger, having left the world a bit better off.
For the moment, I'm going to slip right on over all the sort of normal complaints about older pop culture. Annie was pretty advanced for its day on the gender front, had some African American characters who weren't particularly  stereotyped and definitely not helpless, but also stereotyped the hell out of Asians and a whole host of other people who came up on the crappy end of colonialism. As mentioned before, in the class war, it was solidly and unequivocally on the wrong side. And anything to do with hetero-, homo-, bi-, or any other sexual feeling was invisible. So let's start right off with saying that a modern day reader is more than likely to have some problems with it.
Nevertheless, I think Annie, and the other Adventurous Kid with Backup stories, offer something we don't see enough of in modern pulp culture: the kind of comfort children traditionally find in a fairy tale. I'm thinking here of the sort of thing Bruno Bettelheim wrote about in The Uses of Enchantment.***** In that marvelous defense of fantastic literature for children, he talks about Sleeping Beauty as an assurance to girls that yes, someday, something will happen connected with being a woman (as spinning flax assuredly was in the culture where the story comes from), and then you'll bleed, and fall into a kind of sleep where you're not yourself for a long time, and then eventually wake up into the adult world of love.  Or that Hansel and Gretel indicated that yes, when you set out into the adult world too young, and with poor control over your own feelings and appetites, certain cruel and old people may seek to devour you, but you don't have to give them what they want -- they can be tricked and you can defeat them. Or that Rumplestiltskin has something to do with your first sexual experiences: a secret that first makes you feel like you do the impossible, but can steal your whole life unless you can guess its name.
In The Red Angel, G.K. Chesterton said something which has been quoted, paraphrased, and re-paraphrased a great deal; I'm going to give it in longer form here so that we can get a little context:
Fairy tales, then, are not responsible for producing in children fear, or any of the shapes of fear; fairy tales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly; that is in the child already, because it is in the world already. Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.
Exactly what the fairy tale does is this: it accustoms him for a series of clear pictures to the idea that these limitless terrors had a limit, that these shapeless enemies have enemies in the knights of God, that there is something in the universe more mystical than darkness, and stronger than strong fear.
and not much farther on, he says something that as a sometime fantasist and sometime writer for kids I believe with all my heart:
At the four corners of a child's bed stand Perseus and Roland, Sigurd and St. George. If you withdraw the guard of heroes you are not making him rational; you are only leaving him to fight the devils alone. For the devils, alas, we have always believed in. The hopeful element in the universe has in modern times continually been denied and reasserted; but the hopeless element has never for a moment been denied.
Well, let me project back on my five or six year old self what all this has to do with Little Orphan Annie, and her cousin Jonny Quest:
 I think there's a deep and wonderful message for a kid in such fictions, because what they say is that
you will go out into the bigger wider world,
            you will make your own way and make friends there,
                        you will encounter some big bad things too,
when the time comes, you will struggle against the big bad things
and they may very well be bigger than you,
BUT ...
the whole might and power of the righteous adults can come in to save you if need be.  You are not alone and you are never truly abandoned.
Who needs to hear that?
Kids about the age I was when I fell in love with Little Orphan Annie. (One thing I know for sure, it wasn't her eyes ...)
 Kindergarten, first grade, that age where they're going to spend hours a day away from parents, with other adults, among peers.  When they're going to form their first independent friendships, and find out about the ogres that are bullies, and the dragons that are adults who don't like them or want them to succeed, and a world that is wonderful and promising but also unfair and discouraging. And what those stories said to kids that age was, go out, be fearless, handle as much as you can. And if the dragon is too big, sound the horn or blow the whistle or ... to get back out of the metaphor range ... tell a trusted adult.
It's not yet time for "Kid, you're on your own."  That comes later, maybe at the Heinlein juvenile stage. But it's also well past the age when "If the crazy masculine force you found in the woods devours the nurturing feminine one (or in plainer terms, if a big old hairy wolf gets into the bed and eats grandma), you can be rescued by the controlled and clever masculine force of the woodman" (Red Riding Hood doesn't do anything more than talk to the wolf, which she's not supposed to do, and run for help). 
The Adventurous Kid with Backup story is the middle step: go out and handle all you can, and the adult world (or to use a term I don't much like, The Community) is there when you really need it. Go out into the world as brave as Spaceman Spiff or Annie, stand up to the bully and the ogre and the Fang Tooth Tiger, defeat them yourself if you can, and if not, Oliver Warbucks, Race Bannon, and St. George will be right along to kick the monster's ass. There's an age that story is just right for (just as there's a just right age for Cinderella or The Great Gatsby).
So, back to Annie: this is why, although I love musicals and Annie has some great numbers in it, I've never really liked the stage musical much. In that version, Oliver Warbucks is a lonely old sad man -- basically Scrooge -- who adopts the kid because she's cute (and on the advice of his PR manager). After that, Annie turns out to be the Positive Thinking Moppet of the Year, and in a complete denial of Harold Gray's original plucky little capitalist-to-be, ends up teaching Franklin Roosevelt about ebullience and happy-warrioring and sticking out that noble chin.
In the stage musical, the Broadway version of Annie actually does very little. She's the perpetually intercepted football that sings Tomorrow while she's shuffled around on the chessboard in a blizzard of chopped metaphors. I'd seen several stage productions (a theatre guy in the last few decades could hardly have avoided it, and I wasn't trying), usually liked the singing and dancing, and let the plot (and the kid is so cute that everyone loves her and they become so happy it stops the Great Depression) pretty much drift on by.
That, at last, brings me to the recent Will-Smith-produced Annie, which I just saw at a second run house because I'm an old Midwesterner and what you might term a cheap bastard. 
I like Jamie Foxx as a performer very much, and will go to movies just because he's in them. Quevenzhane Wallis is simply the most astonishing child actor of the last couple of decades, a kid with so much charisma and presence combined with real, strong acting ability that you can pretty much just call her a child prodigy, say that genius makes its own rules, and let it go at that. Even more astonishing in a kid actor is that she's what the pros call a "giving" actor -- she makes other people on camera or stage with her look better, because she's so clearly believing them that the rest of us do too.
I went with high hopes, even though I knew reviews had been mixed; I have reached a point in life where I am quite comfortable liking things that every critic dumps on, or being bored to death by things everyone else loves. Besides, Little Orphan Annie.  Couldn't miss an adaptation of it. 
And the idea was so promising. At this point in history, there are some self-made super-rich African Americans, there are still an abundance of African-American poor kids with courage and brains but a not-very-supportive background, and the intersection of race and class, and of father-daughter relations ... well, it seemed like there had to be a ton of potential to scrape the rust off the old work and make it live and breathe.  I really wanted to see that movie!
Unfortunately, what I saw was a lightly browned version of Broadway Annie, with the songs staged rather badly (and often without a strong point to them) and a thoroughly awesome cast insanely underused. The Annie-Warbucks chemistry was great; every time Foxx and Wallis were on screen together I was painfully reminded of what a great possibility was being kicked away. Even things that really work in the old musical were often damped down and lost for no good reason; all they gave Wallis to do during Tomorrow was to be sad because a piece of paper that had already been revealed to contain none of the information she wanted had fallen into a puddle, and to walk up the street singing bravely. Why not at least let her be trying to cheer up Sandy, freshly rescued from cruel boys tormenting him, as in the original? The best actors in the world -- and Quevenzhane Wallis is good on a level we rarely see even in adults -- can't do anything if the director gives them nothing to do.
But about halfway through, I started to think ...
What if Foxx and Wallis had been cast, not in the 70's musical, but the 20's-60's comic strip? Sure, we'd need to get Will Stacks (the lame replacement for Oliver Warbucks, who damn well ought to be Oliver Warbucks) out of being a cell phone magnate and into being somebody more like Lucius Fox or Tony Stark or both combined. But look at him move; he's still strong and young enough to do action hero scenes when the time comes. Bollywood and the Asian martial arts film industry are swarming with handsome young men who could become more dignified and fully human versions of Punjab and The Asp (we could start by  giving them better names), but when the chips are down, Foxx could handle key action scenes.
And oh, the sheer grace of Quevenzhane Wallis. That kid has strength and agility; she's okay as a dancer (and to judge by all the autotuning, maybe not so great as a singer) but let's see her in some serious action sequences I was massively disappointed that her only role in her own kidnap rescue was to wave at people with cell phones. Come the fuck ON, people, you've got a ten year old that moves like an Olympic athlete, can't you give her a good fight scene with a couple of slimy kidnappers?
So here's the thing, Mr. Smith. I shall pretend you are reading this.  The musical was all right but not great as an origin story. Next movie, either lose the songs or at least get creative staff that understand why a musical is not a collection of music videos stuck together. 
Now it's time, before that great kid and that natural action star get any older, to make some sequels.
But next time ... make the newspaper Annie.
Say for example there's a traitor in Stacks enterprises, which has just gotten a patent on a new miracle technology that, I don't know, some Hollywood bullshit, is making cell phones that transmogrify into personal tanks if you're being mugged, or a super communications satellite essential to the safety of the free world, whatever.  Doesn't matter as long as it's not a silly bling-display like those phones.  And said traitor stages an accident, suddenly Daddy and Grace are gone, presumed dead, but Annie realizes that she's about to be shunted off to somewhere to get her out of the way and she escapes and flees back to Harlem where she knows people, but there are bad guys in hot pursuit and ...
There's a whole big planet out there that can be covered with villains and evildoers, where an adventurous kid could find some high adventure, movie after movie, for the next few years. Think kid and dog being backed out on a girder over a precipice by a killer robot ... and then in swoops the Stacks-marked helicopter ... and then in the NEXT fifteen minutes ...
Let Quevenzhane Wallis reassure a generation of little kids that the world is safe to explore because the adults have your back (and because you're pretty damn capable yourself). Let Jamie Foxx show them what kind of adults those are -- St. George and Lucius Fox and Mace Windu and Race Bannon, all the other adults there to have your back when you need it most. Make Annie II (and III and as many more as the public will stand) -- and make it from the right Annie, the fairy tale of courage, hope, and community that is the newspaper strip, and not the positive-thinking passive insipidity of the Broadway Annie.
Come on, Mr. Smith. You can do it. Everything you need is right there. And leapin' lizards, wouldn't it be fun?
*Just listing those names seems to call up some great swath of childhood smells, sounds, sights, and everything.
**Go ahead, someone, add it if it really doesn't exist there, or email me about it if I'm just missing it.
*** I've always wondered what the application form is like for the Warren Buffett Orphan Rescuing Commando Force or the Bill Gates Deus Ex Machina Rangers.
****I imagine them all joining together in the Legion of Teenagers Who Escape from Kidnappers Several Times A Year.
***** Yeah, I know old Bruno made up most of his case studies, distorted facts like a funhouse mirror, and was an intellectual mountebank. Let me just ask you: who better to defend fairy tales, those lies that are utterly unreal but believed because somehow we sense there is truth in them?