This review was originally posted March 11, 2011. It has been reprinted for the film’s home video release.
“Red Riding Hood” opens this weekend as one of the worst reviewed movies of the year so far. And I will be honest: it is a bad movie. The screenplay is awful, the story is all over the place, and the pacing is way off the mark. In many ways it deserves the lambasting it’s getting.
On the other hand, it does not deserve to be one of the worst reviewed movies of the year. By that I mean the quality of the criticism, the incredible laziness that seems omnipresent in the discourse on this film in the press. This film is bad, but it is also interesting, and enough that it merits at least an attempt at critical discussion. “This film is bad because it’s like "Twilight",” is not that critical discussion.
I get it: Catherine Hardwicke is trying to successfully re-capture the demographic she carried so impressively with the first of the “Twilight” films. It is a legitimate point, and one that certainly deserves to be mentioned. But the crafting of an entire critical conversation around such a reductive thesis is just uninspired and dull. Yes, there is a love triangle in the film, presumably there to replicate the success of the Edward-Bella-Jacob drama that has made so much cash. Valerie (Amanda Seyfried) is caught between Peter (Shiloh Fernandez) and Henry (Max Irons), respectively the bad boy and the one her mother wants her to marry. But that’s really only about a quarter of what goes on; it isn’t the principal drive of the story, and it is just downright careless to make the assertion that as a result of that particular plotline, “Red Riding Hood” is simply a lame attempt at “Twilight” redux.
Actually, the film has a lot more in common with this week’s indie release “Black Death,” though that film is better at presenting the themes. In "Red Riding Hood" Gary Oldman does a solid job as Father Solomon, the real villain, representing a fanatical religious faith that interrogates and oppresses an entire town. He’s a bitter man, set in his ways and completely unforgiving, and he totes around an enormous metal elephant that he uses to torture innocent civilians. Sure, much of his dialogue is redundant and annoying, but it’s worth pointing out that the result of his antagonistic antics is a genuinely interesting shift in the adaptation. Suddenly the villain of the film is in question, and the typically straightforward frame of reference we expect in a fairy tale evaporates.
Which, incidentally, is fascinating. To match the confusion created by the genuinely horrendous pacing of the often over-complicated plot, there is a genuine effort to create ethical confusion and to make a point about fear and excessive faith. It’s a twist on the original story, an attempt to modernize its themes instead of its setting, which is a valid goal that at least on this point is successful.
Hardwicke and screenwriter David Johnson also attempt to excise the potential problem of sexism in the film, which I would argue is necessary for any fairy tale adaptation. Of course, it’s extremely easy to simply accuse “Red Riding Hood” of being sexist because it follows the basic plot of “Twilight” and the girl caught in the middle has no real agency. Unfortunately, that’s just flagrantly untrue, and can be chalked up to what really is a “guilt by association” mentality that will probably come up every time Catherine Hardwicke directs a movie about teenagers from now on.
Despite sharing many similar plot points, this is not “Twilight.” Valerie might have two boys chasing her, but at no point is she actually emotionally crippled or confused by their efforts. When she thinks Peter might be the wolf, instead of running off to his rival’s arms she sticks to her own resources (she doesn’t really like the other guy to begin with, so it isn’t even a genuine love triangle). At one point she does need to be rescued, which is problematic, but that’s sort of it for moments of damsel-in-distress. In my opinion, the creation of an empowered and emotionally self-sufficient character in Valerie works – unlike the extremely half-hearted and entirely unsuccessful attempt at creating a self-actualized female lead in “Beastly,” another fairy tale film. If you disagree here, and think the "Red Riding Hood" is even a fraction as troublesome as the work of Stephanie Meyer on this issue, please sound off in the comments. I’m interested to discuss it, because I think it’s one of the more unfortunate aspects of the auto-pilot reviews.
While we're at it, I'll say some other nice things about the film. Julie Christie is great, and I do think that despite the somewhat cliché character type she is given, it was a good choice to expand the part of the grandmother into something more interesting and potentially sinister. The cinematography is often quite beautiful, thanks to experienced DP Mandy Walker ("Australia" and, appropriately enough, "Beastly"), and the enormous werewolf itself was actually somewhat effectively done. As I said before, Gary Oldman is definitely a plus, and I would hazard that Amanda Seyfried is the greatest bad-movie actress of her generation (sorry Leighton Meester).
Unfortunately, this is still a movie governed by some major overriding flaws. I would put the principal blame on the screenplay; much of the dialogue is just terrible, and characters do far too much obvious stating their of feelings. The plot is also unnecessarily complicated, which despite somewhat effectively coming together in the third act, turns the first half of the film into a miserably clunky period of exposition. A more streamlined story could have saved this film, and entire characters and plotlines should have been cut. The melodramatic family drama, none of which happens on screen but is rather just a series of irritating revelations about infidelity and betrayal, is probably the biggest problem with the script; the entirely shrill and unnecessarily constant rehash of Father Solomon’s dark past and bitterness runs a close second.
Again: bad movie. However, this is a bad movie with some interesting moments and occasional successes. As we watch this sudden explosion of fairy tale adaptations, moreover, there is something that can be gained from actually thinking critically about a film like “Red Riding Hood.” Its attempts to modernize the themes instead of the scenery, for example, are fascinating in comparison with “Beastly” (which, for my money, is by far the worse of the two films). It is somewhat disheartening that so much of the writing on “Red Riding Hood” is instead dominated by lazy “Twilight” invocations and downright silly complaints about its “icky” plot implications or how everyone speaks in American accents when clearly Hardwicke should have made her entire cast fake some sort of Ruritanian dialect. (Ruritania, by the way, doesn’t exist, so I am fascinated to know exactly what Todd McCarthy would have preferred this ensemble to sound like. Something Austro-Hungarian perhaps?)
Should you go see it? I don’t know, why not?. But if you do, come back to talk about it. If nothing else, “Red Riding Hood” is fun to discuss.
"Red Riding Hood" is now available on DVD and Blu-ray.
Recommended if you like: "Black Death"; "Twilight"; "Bluebeard"