The big eyes of Amanda Seyfried are all the better to see the goofy themes about desire and repression with in Red Riding Hood, a movie that takes the subtext of the fairy tale and makes it big Twilighty text, complete with that explosion-of-bangs-from-the-forehead, Ryan Secreast-y teen-boy hairstyle.
Valerie (Seyfried) knows better than to head alone into the scary scary woods near her Brothers-Grimm-y village, but she’ll take that risk if it means a few moments alone with Peter (Shiloh Fernandez), a discount Robert Pattinson who is a woodcutter and dresses like he’s trying out for Dread Pirate Roberts in the Ice Capades version of The Princess Bride. They’re all kissy-kisses and longing, but an arranged marriage of Valerie to village rich-boy Henry (Max Irons) threatens to put an end to Valerie and Peter’s 2gether4ever plans.
The issue of Valerie’s future becomes all the more urgent when her sister is found killed by the wolf that has plagued their village for years. The village had made a deal with the wolf — its tastiest livestock if the wolf leaves its humans alone — but the mauling death of Valerie’s sister has broken this truce. Soon, the men are headed to the caves to hunt the wolf — or werewolf, as it is believed to be — while back in the village Valerie’s mom (Virginia Madsen) tries to convince Valerie that marrying for love is the way you end up poor and with one daughter who is eaten.
After the mead-fueled vengeance party (led by Michael Hogan playing a village elder who is so Saul Tigh that I keep expecting him to rant about “frakking toasters”) kills a wolf — which it believes is The wolf — they celebrate with a Bacchanal under the full moon, where the angst triangle between Henry, Valerie and Peter is able to get even angstier (there is hay, it is rolled in). But back comes the wolf, a big silly CGI dog and thus the village comes under the power of Solomon (Gary Oldman), a priest-like figure who uses suspicion and hellfire to scare yokels and hunt werewolves.
Not that this movie should necessarily be graded on a curve this generous, but what a wonderfully less stupid movie Red Riding Hood is than, say, Beastly, the recent totally craptastic attempt at doing roughly the same thing, namely update a classic fairy tale for your modern tween. This movie looks very pretty, with its strange gingerbread-house setting and its big bad wilderness, which looks like it’s auditioning for a Wuthering Heights remake.
And then there’s Amanda Seyfried — who is both the movie’s big asset and the disability it has to overcome. She is at times the fierce heroine the movie needs her to be and, at other times, a very pretty-looking mannequin who is being wheeled through scenes. I’m not sure why sometimes she appears to be participating in the movie and other times she appears to be watching it happen around her, like it’s some sort of murder mystery dinner party she doesn’t want to be at. But if you don’t let things like the lack of a decent lead performance get in the way of your enjoyment of a movie, she adds to the spooky weirdness that is this movie’s official theme.
Red Riding Hood 55 percent works exactly as I wanted it to. It has some fun with the whole everyone’s-a-suspect set-up. It’s a fun little detail that the guy who turns a we’re-all-in-it-together fight against a wolf into a the-devil-resides-among-us witch hunt (literally) is a man of the cloth. And the way the townsfolk are suspicious of each other is nicely presented. I’m not sure how director Catherine Hardwicke got Madsen to play the mom, Billy Burke to play Valerie’s dad (a drunken alternate-universe version of the dad of Bella Swan he plays in the Twilight movies) or Julie freakin’ Christie to ham it up as the grandmother to whose house Valerie goes, wearing a red cape and looking to confront a wolf. And while the laughs in Hardwicke’s Twilight (and the two subsequent sequels) are mostly of the laughing-at-the-movie variety, Red Riding Hood has some nice moments of laughing with it, often times connected to a small group of giggly girls that pop up throughout the movie. And to anything to do with Oldman’s character — whose slimy piety is quite entertaining.
For all this Red Riding Hood never quite manages to be more than just a grab bag of winks and story-telling cleverness. It doesn’t quite have the plot coherence it needs. While it sets up some fun possibilities about the wolf, the movie doesn’t give us a satisfying wolf payoff. Going in, I had a guess for who the wolf would be. As I watched the movie, I guessed at another possible wolf. Either of my guesses could have been used to make clever commentary on larger issues. But in the end, the wolf’s identify felt very heads-it’s-that-one tails-it’s-this-one. To make it work, the movie has to hold together that plot point with a fair amount of expositional tape and so right at the point where you want action and excitement you get a very long, unconvincingly delivered soliloquy.
Red Riding Hood had the potential to be so much better but, while I watched it, the movie was able to rise to the level of sorta good enough.
Rated PG-13 for violence and creature terror, and some sensuality. Directed by Catherine Hardwicke and written by David Johnson, Red Riding Hood is an hour and 40 minutes long and is distributed in wide release by Warner Bros.