There’s a strangeness that creeps along the edges of Catherine Hardwicke’s Red Riding Hood. It’s a PG-13 teen soap opera that wants to sneak in some surprisingly R-rated content like cannibalism and torturing the mentally handicapped. But what’s surprising and creative in the film is always smothered beneath convention, simplistic design, and insulting themes. There are directors who could blend a classic fairy tale with a teen drama and a modern attitude, but Hardwicke is not one those directors. Red Riding Hood feels unbalanced and its stranger elements never feel organically blended into the larger narrative. The result is an off-putting affair that owes more to Twilight than it does to the Brothers Grimm.
Red Riding Hood is set in a quaint village that has a bit of a wolf problem, but ritual animal sacrifices at the full moon have kept the beast at bay for the past two decades. Against this back drop we meet the young and beautiful Valerie (Amanda Seyfried). Valerie is in love with the unsmiling, personality-free woodsman Peter (Shiloh Fernandez), but her parents (Billy Burke and Virginia Madsen) have arranged for her to be married to the wealthy Henry (Max Irons). Word of her betrothal is disrupted by more shocking news: Valerie’s sister has been slain by the wolf. The local priest (Lukas Haas) has sent for the Vatican’s resident wolf-slayer Solomon (Gary Oldman) who then proceeds to throw the town into a panic as he tells them they don’t have a wolf problem, but a werewolf problem and that anyone could be the beast.
Hardwicke seems most comfortable when she’s playing up the mystery angle of her story. The whodunit aspect of finding the werewolf isn’t a bad way of having Valerie try to deduce whose big brown eyes also belong to the big bad wolf. Of course, she fails miserably at solving the mystery because Hardwicke, as seen previously with Twilight and Thirteen, has no interest in crafting strong female protagonists. Rather, women are victims who must face a difficult choice of which hot guy will protect them.
Even if you ignore the ugly misogyny that, unlike Twilight, can’t be blamed on source material, the whole picture never clicks together. There are some fun flourishes, but Hardwicke doesn’t have the creativity or the organizational capacity to really run with her concepts. The attempt is to re-imagine a fairy tale so that the classic visuals mesh with a modern tone. For example, in one scene Valerie tries to seduce Peter by dancing in a sexually-suggestive manner with her female friend. The result feels crass and done more in an attempt to Gossip Girl up the proceedings because hey, that’s what the kids are watching these days on their cellular telamaphones.
Hardwicke’s failure to match the story with the tone and style makes the mass hysteria and wolf attacks feel more like a bad day at the Renaissance Fair rather than a smart re-invention of a well-known story.
The majority of the cast does their best, but no one really has anything to work with. Seyfried remains as sexy as ever but I felt that the best she could give her performance was her ability to look good in a red riding hood. Gary Oldman just chews up the scenery but his character is so predictably villainous that you’re left wondering why he found the role worth taking when he has so many memorable villain roles to his credit. By far the worst piece of casting is Fernandez. He has no chemistry with Seyfried, no vibrancy to make him a likable love interest, and it feels like he got the job because Hardwicke really liked his product-heavy hairdo.
Due in part to the success of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, Hollywood will be throwing us classic literature and fairy tale re-imaginings for years to come. I’m not opposed to a new spin on an old tale, but that spin has to be thoughtful and well-executed. Red Riding Hood is neither.