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'Annie' is the first live-action family musical in ages

By David Sterritt / June 10, 1982

It isn't ''Little Awful Annie,'' as one critic suggests. But it's not a rebirth of the great musical tradition, either.

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After all the publicity, and all the tales of inflated spending - up to $50 million by some reports - Annie turns out to be a reasonably entertaining movie. Adults might want to take a child along, with fresh eyes to appreciate the overblown settings and fantastic story twists. And children might want to have a grown-up in tow, to explain the ''New Deal'' that Daddy Warbucks and Franklin D. Roosevelt talk about so much. But viewers of all ages are likely to have a pretty good time.

Whatever happened to the great musical tradition, anyway? Hardly any musicals are made nowadays, and the few we do get are tricky, like ''All That Jazz,'' or revisionist, like ''New York, New York.'' Or both, like ''Pennies From Heaven.'' Based on the venerable comic strip and the hit Broadway show, ''Annie'' is the first live-action, all-family musical in ages. As such, it's considered a major commercial risk. But it's also a major opportunity to revitalize a type of innocent entertainment that has become rare.

This said, it's too bad ''Annie'' falls flat in a few departme.ts. Most disappointing is the climax, which reaches for suspense with a contrived chase on a railroad bridge - a pointless and prolonged sequence that neither thrills nor chills. More generally, the subplots are knitted too loosely into the film's fabric, and the screenplay has enough lapses from taste to earn a PG rating.

On the plus side, ''Annie'' strikes a neat balance between its extravagant story, its boisterous musical numbers, and its neat performances. Suspend your disbelief just a smidgen, and it's hard to resist the plot about a smart-alecky kid who rises from rags to riches on the strength of curly hair and sheer chutzpah. While few of the songs are memorable, they're sung and danced with an energy that borders on mania, and who cares if some of the hoofing looks like leftovers from ''Mary Poppins''?

It's also fascinating to ponder the political implications of ''Annie,'' onstage and on-screen. The original Broadway version opened in 1977, before Reaganomics became a national phenomenon. FDR is an important characteRPz he show, and he invehts the New Deal right before our eyes, with a vivid description of government putting people back to work and reshaping the American dream. ''Annie'' is still going strong on the Uris Theater stage, and when I dropped in the other night, the New Deal speech prompted a smattering of applause.

But there was a much longer and more delighted audience response when addy Warbucks intoned the secret of his success: that it's OK to trample people on your way ''up'' as long as you aren't planning a return trip ''down.'' Among the Broadway set, at least, aggressive business tactics are definitely more popular nowadays than governmental idealism.

Perhaps reflecting current moods, the movie tones down the historical perspective. The Great Depression of the 1930s is evoked less pungently in the screen version - despite the obvious opportunities for realism - and the Washington scenes are less forceful. FDR still lectures Daddy Warbucks, insisting that business is not the only business of America. But nobody seems to care very much, one way or the other. The real business of ''Annie'' is cute little girls, the movie reminds us, and anything else is mere diversion.

Still, it's encouraging that the screen ''Annie'' makes a few gestures toward historical atmosphere, bringing the background into the foreground, and deepening what might have been a purely frivolous two hours. The director, John Huston, and the writer, Carol Sobieski, don't take Daddy Warbucks's bucks entirely at face value, and there are hints that some of his billion could be employed better than in bolstering the comfort of a single lonely capitalist.

To be sure, ''Annie'' isn't an experimental ''Pennies From Heaven'' or an analytic ''Pacific Overtures,'' or even a moody-wacky ''42nd Street.'' But there's a bit more here than the life and good times of a little girl and her dog.