REVIEW: Curse of the Werewolf Haunts Red Riding Hood -- Or Is It Just 'The Curse'?
An alternate title for Red Riding Hood might have been "Catherine Hardwicke's Revenge": This might have been the director's chance to restake her claim on the territory of steamy teen fairytales, after New Moon, the sequel to Hardwicke's enormously successful (and, for my money, effective) Twilight, was removed from her plate and given to Chris Weitz. Red Riding Hood certainly reads like a faux Twilight, only this time a werewolf, not a vampire, is the stand-in for the terrifying unknowability of sex. There's no reason that little tweak shouldn't work. One set of fangs is as good as another, right?
But aside from a few arresting visuals, Red Riding Hood is just a slog through the woods. Amanda Seyfried is Valerie, a brave medieval lass who has grown up in a village that's long been terrorized by a werewolf: The townsfolk try to appease it by leaving cute little suckling pigs at the forest's edge, but to no avail. One day the wolf takes a human victim, Valerie's sister, bringing sadness to the household (which includes dad Billy Burke and mom Virginia Madsen, trundling around in tattered buckskin and crocheted shawls, respectively) and to the town at large.
Valerie has other worries, too: She's in love with childhood sweetheart Peter (Shiloh Fernandez), who's poor, but her parents have betrothed her to local blacksmith Henry (Max Irons), who's rich. Isn't it always the way? But back to the werewolf problem: One of the ostensibly more thoughtful townspeople (played by a sadly underused Lukas Haas) has invited scary werewolf hunter Solomon (Gary Oldman) to bring his werewolf-killing skills -- apparently abetted by his silver Lee Press-On nails -- to the village. Also, Valerie's cougarish grandmother (Julie Christie), who lives alone in the woods because she likes it that way, has sewn her beloved granddaughter a flowing red cape. Valerie loves this cape and wears it a lot, allowing Hardwicke and her DP, Mandy Walker, to fill the movie with endless, repetitive shots of this gorgeous young maiden cavorting in the snow, the red of her cape representing menstrual blood, the evidence of lost virginity on a white sheet, what have you.
Laden as she is with all that symbolism, Seyfried walks through Red Riding Hood with surprising surefootedness: She's stunning to look at, sort of like a pre-Raphaelite Blythe doll. And she utters even the movie's dopiest lines (the script is by David Johnson) with so much conviction that you're totally ready to see her kick major wolf-butt.
But Seyfried can't survive the story's essential dumbness. The movie's alleged surprise ending involves a character you'd never expect, because he's barely even a presence in the movie -- the big revelation is spilled out in a rush of expository dialogue at the last minute. The other major problem is that neither of Valerie's suitors are particular appealing. They're both good-looking in a "so what?" kind of way, which seems to be the problem with so many young actors today: We have a bunch of terrific young actresses out there on the landscape, Seyfried among them, and few guys to match them in terms of smarts or sex appeal. Even in fairy tales, our heroines are forced to date down.
But perhaps the greatest sin of Red Riding Hood is the way it reduces the normally fabulous Julie Christie into a hippie-dippie granny in medieval Eileen Fisher gear and dreadlocks. That, and the fact that the negative-space innocence of these townsfolk makes them seem even stupider than the denizens of M. Night Shyamalan's The Village. And that's pretty stupid. By the time brave Valerie frees the town from its werewolf curse (wearing a cape that itself represents "the curse" -- get it?), this little burg has become the most stifling suburb imaginable. No wonder Valerie, like her grandmother, decamps for the solitude of the woods, where feminist theory takes a backseat, thank God, to everyday stuff like gathering nuts and berries.