(by Dustin Putman
How can such an enduring classic story possibly be screwed up? "Red Riding Hood" manages this feat, again and again. Director Catherine Hardwicke, at one time thought to be a filmmaker of notable promise with her first two pictures, 2003's "Thirteen" and 2005's "Lords of Dogtown," has lost ever more of her soul the larger her budgets have gotten. 2008's teenybopper romance "Twilight" kicked off a mighty lucrative franchise, but was still no more than respectfully mediocre as an anti-feminist story about a bright 17-year-old girl who gives up her aspirations and future for the sole purpose of fulfilling her infatuation with a hot-looking vampire. With "Red Riding Hood," a loose, shoddy interpretation of the fairy tale, Hardwicke has stripped herself of an identity—unless, that is, her identity is to only make meek, dumbed-down PG-13 fantasies targeting less-savvy 14-year-old girls. Wasting an eclectic cast doing forgettable work and shot on chintzy soundstages that look like the sets from "Fraggle Rock," the film is a botched turkey that never takes off. It doesn't work as horror, as whimsical folk tale, or as a romance. It does, however, work on occasion as bad dinner theatre. Article continues below
In an unnamed time period, in a fictional village on the edge of the woods, young, creamy-skinned Valerie (Amanda Seyfried) is conflicted by her upcoming arranged marriage to Henry (Max Irons). "I don't feel like it's my wedding," she says. "I feel like I'm being sold." Before Valerie can run away with the boy she loves, childhood friend and woodcutter outcast Peter (Shiloh Fernandez), tragedy strikes when her elder sister is killed by a wolf—its first human casualty in twenty years. Solomon (Gary Oldman), a witchfinder general, is called in to investigate and lets the worried townspeople know that the culprit could be any one of them in disguise. With the night of the blood moon approaching, Valerie may very well be next on the wolf's hit list. But why?
"Red Riding Hood" is dead-in-the-water lifeless, a thriller with zero thrills, a love triangle with the heat of winter snow, a mystery that could have at least worked were the characters more than ciphers. One cannot label the film as deliberately paced, because that suggests the slowness was intentional in order to gradually draw viewers into its web. Instead, it's just cumbersome, as inert as frozen molasses petrified on a tree trunk. Director Catherine Hardwicke's idea of building tension and a sense of unrest is for characters to walk into dark rooms, followed by a split-second shot of a CGI-created wolf face darting at the screen. The romantic entanglements are chilly, to say the least, with Peter and Henry so insipidly wishy-washy that they prove almost interchangeable. When Peter tells Valerie he wants to eat her up and she responds by sensually wrapping her legs tightly around his waist, you just want to slap the girl and remind her that her beloved sister was brutally slaughtered the day before. Well, not really brutally. Despite being viciously clawed to death across her chest, the kid-friendly MPAA rating requires that what little blood there is be black in color. Come to think of it, revealing that the ill-fated sister was actually a robot, or some weird quaker version of a Stepford wife, might have added a little much-needed intrigue to the monotonous proceedings.
Amanda Seyfried (2010's "Chloe") has been racking up an impressive big-screen resumé for herself lately, but this particular role does her no favors. The screenplay by David Johnson (2009's "Orphan") calls upon her to do no more than just gaze into space and occasionally look pensive. She is severely hampered by the soapy writing, and that goes for the whole cast. Gary Oldman appears—but probably shouldn't have—as Solomon, a part so vague and thankless it gives his equally out-of-place turn in 2009's "The Unborn" a run for its money. Shiloh Fernandez (2008's "Cadillac Records") and relative newcomer Max Irons are pretty, but lack the dark intensity called upon them to exude. They are, after all, two of the key suspects, and they're not nearly wily enough. Julie Christie (2004's "Finding Neverland") plays a revisionist's concept of Valerie's granny, but hasn't the warmth that should be there. Even Glenn Close's snowboarding grandma in 2005's "Hoodwinked!" is preferable to this. Finally, Billy Burke (2011's "Drive Angry") and a criminally underused Virginia Madsen (2009's "The Haunting in Connecticut") play Valerie's parents, who don't want to hear it when she objects to marrying Henry.
The only angle "Red Riding Hood" remotely works as is a whodunit, but that's an aside to the movie's overwhelming lethargy. In regards to the visuals, the film awkwardly combines occasional live-action, effects-enhanced vistas with studio sets posing as the outdoors and doing a crummy job of it. While the artificiality might have been intentional, it is far too prominent and cheap-looking. And then there's the quintessential scene in all retellings of the tale, the famous moment where the wolf gobbles up Red's granny and dresses like her as a means of getting closer to his main prey. It's a creepy situation, and one that could have really been milked in a feature like this one for all the suspense it's worth. Hardwicke ruins it by (1) making it a dream sequence, and (2) treating it as camp rather than a distinct threat. Meanwhile, when the wolf is in animal form, it looks like exactly what it is: a computer invention. When will filmmakers realize that practical effects, such as the ones used in 1981's "An American Werewolf in London" and 1984's "The Company of Wolves" (the latter an infinitely superior, subtextually fraught rendition of the "Red Riding Hood" legend), are more impressive and definitely more effective than dime-store CGI? Or is it just that they've gotten lazy? "Red Riding Hood" ends with the suggestion of something that is likely illegal in all fifty states, but don't tell the screeching, oohing-ahhing, easily gullible girls in the audience that. Not enough thought was put into it for even the clueless filmmakers to apparently be aware.