Red Riding Hood (United States, 2011)

March 10, 2011
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Red Riding Hood Poster

At least the werewolves in Red Riding Hood have teeth and, when in human form, they don't parade around shirtless. Alas, wearing the PG-13 like a Scarlet Letter, the movie advertises an absence of true horror. Even Lon Cheney Jr.'s Wolfman was scarier than the too-obviously CGI lycanthrope here. Still, the material with the monster isn't the worst thing offered up by this "re-telling" of the popular children's story - that label belongs to the dreaded love triangle, which is so badly scribbled that it could have been lifted directly from the series in which director Catherine Hardwick recently toiled: Twilight.

Unlike the recent Beastly, which made the catastrophic mistake of transferring Beauty and the Beast to modern-day America, Red Riding Hood stays rooted in a medieval-style fantasy world in which the Church wields immense power and werewolves and witches exist. (Nick Cage visited a place like this in his recent box office bomb, Season of the Witch.) In a village set in the midst of a great wilderness lives a young woman named Valerie (Amanda Seyfried), who is in love with a poor woodcutter named Peter (Shiloh Fernandez). Alas, Valerie's mother (Virginia Madsen) and father (Billy Burke) have betrothed her to the wealthy Henry (Max Irons), for whom she has little affection. Valerie, who has a fondness for wearing a red cloak, frequently visits her nearby grandmother (Julie Christie), but the older woman never weighs in about whether she prefers Luke or Henry. The love triangle fades into the background when the mauling of Valerie's sister reveals that the dreaded werewolf of old has returned. The local priest summons master demon-hunter and lycanthrope-killer Father Solomon (Gary Oldman), who arrives prepared for battle. He doesn't have to wait long.

Poor Amanda Seyfried. One of today's most lively and expressive young actresses, she finds herself stuck between two lifeless pieces of wood. Both Shiloh Fernandez and Max Irons are animated mannequins, evidencing no discernible acting talent to go along with their admitted good looks. One obvious similarity between Red Riding Hood and Twilight is that Hardwicke cares more about her male leads' appearances than their thespian abilities. Gary Oldman may be on board to fill that void, but he's in his over-the-top mode here, not quite frothing at the mouth, but coming close. His character inhabits a moral gray area but the script is too black-and-white to dwell on the complexity of his motivations. His Father Solomon is the most interesting character in the film but, after he has been around for about 15 minutes, the filmmakers forget that and set about turning him into a cookie-cutter bad guy.

Red Riding Hood retains the framework of the children's story, but that's about all it keeps. This isn't the first time (nor will it likely be the last) when some of the ideas and themes of "Little Red Riding Hood" have been used in an adult fashion. The 1996 movie Freeway, starring Kiefer Sutherland and Reese Witherspoon, accomplished some infinitely more interesting variations than what we are presented with here. Red Riding Hood flounders in a limbo between fantasy and horror where the desire for widespread youth appeal restricts it from embracing the latter while the story arc limits its capabilities as the former.

For a while, Red Riding Hood unfolds like a mystery, with the identity of the werewolf keeping us guessing. Several possibilities are immediately rejected, but Hardwicke is adept at playing the red herring game without being too obvious. When the truth is unveiled, it's a little disappointing, but not as disappointing as the lackluster climax and conclusion. Red Riding Hood's final five minutes are by far its worst, although some of the "passionate" moments of the love triangle come close, if only because of the gulf of talent existing between Seyfried and her co-stars. A sex scene is particularly awkward; she might as well have a dildo.

Despite the film's numerous failings, Hardwicke displays mastery when it comes to atmosphere. Her camera sweeps majestically (the opening helicopter shot is impressive) and the sense of the village's isolation is imprinted on every frame. Excluding the silly CGI and the regrettable lack of blood and gore, Red Riding Hood is a visually breathtaking motion picture (and is thankfully not available in 3-D). But the content does not aspire to anything close to the packaging. This is a beautifully wrapped box that contains only a tiny, forgettable trinket. Maybe the Twilight crowd will appreciate it (although I'm not sure about that), but it's hard to imagine anyone else being impressed.

Red Riding Hood (United States, 2011)

Run Time: 1:40
U.S. Release Date: 2011-03-11
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Sexual Content)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1