It’s hard to imagine what anyone involved in the making of Red Riding Hood had in mind while working on this movie. Right about now, though, I’d guess that a pressing need for a new agent might be superseding all other thoughts. The picture finds fresh ways to puzzle and then bore those viewers who remain awake through the overlong entirety of its runtime. Where, I wondered, is the enlivening Nicolas Cage when you really need him?
The movie was directed by Catherine Hardwicke, who in palmier days gave us such well-regarded films as Thirteen and Lords of Dogtown. Her last movie, however, was the 2008 Twilight, the inaugural entry in that dreary saga, of which there are several unwelcome echoes here. There’s a teenage—well, young-adult—love triangle involving a virginal heroine and two tiresome hunks (although both of them boldly keep their shirts on). There’s a talking CGI wolf the size of a pickup truck that’s so crudely concocted it qualifies as comic relief. And there’s Billy Burke, who plays the virgin’s father in the Twilight films and does the same here.
If you’re going to attempt a movie based on this familiar fairy tale, Neil Jordan demonstrated the way to do it with his 1984 The Company of Wolves, in which he explored the story’s psycho-sexual underpinnings in a most haunting way. But Jordan had the latitude of an R rating; Hardwicke seems perfectly content to operate within the strictures of a PG-13, which means that her movie’s one sex scene—well, it borders on being a sex scene—has the carnal heat of a day-old scone.
What Hardwicke has come up with is a substandard werewolf movie with an Inquisition-style witch hunt awkwardly bolted on. Amanda Seyfried is Valerie, the aforementioned virginal heroine. She’s surrounded by interchangeably colorless peasants in her medieval village and is soon to be handed off into an arranged marriage to the studly-but-sensitive village blacksmith (Max Irons), when the man she really loves is the studly-but-sensitive village woodcutter (Shiloh Fernandez). The suspense generated by this weary plot device is on the level of wondering whether or not it’ll rain tomorrow.
The village is plagued by a murderous wolf—an ordinary wolf, the villagers believe, only murderous. They are disabused of this credulous notion by a werewolf-and-witch-hunter named Solomon (wildly overacted by Gary Oldman, a vision in burgundy velvet). Solomon's arrival in the village—with a retinue of hulking masked bodyguards and a large, hollow cast-iron elephant intended for the daffy purpose of slow-roasting local sorcerers—at least has the virtue of being entirely preposterous, and thus entertaining, in an entirely minimal way.
No humans are transformed into werewolves in this movie, presumably because that would be too much fun. Instead, the CGI furball simply puts in appearances, staging bloody romps through the village and occasionally dropping by for a (need I say hilarious?) chat with Valerie. Solomon announces that the ferocious lyncanthrope actually lives by day, in human form, right there in the village. Who could it be? Even Valerie’s doting grandmother (Julie Christie) becomes suspect. But then grandma does act weird sometimes. In one scene, Valerie goes through the what-big-teeth-you-have routine with the suddenly-leering old woman, who seems about to pounce. Irritatingly, however, this turns out to be Only a Dream.
The wolf, being essentially a cartoon, isn’t particularly scary. Some of the dialogue is, though. At one point, Valerie says, “Peter, get me outta here!” At another, grandma mystifies us with “All sorrows are less with bread.” And I’m afraid Oldman, apparently confused about which fairytale he’s involved in, gives forth with, “There’s a big bad wolf. Someone has to kill it.” In addition, the movie is production-designed to death—every inch of every frame is crammed with flickering candles and nubbly fabrics and richly lit woodsy interiors. (Hardwicke started out as a production designer.) Some of these decorative details—a sinister stew, a plate full of suspicious biscuits—are nudgingly highlighted, but then turn out to have no relevance to the plot.
Through all of this the characters wander as if lightly concussed. There are some very good actors trapped in this picture, particularly Christie, Oldman, Seyfried (please see Chloe), and Burke (whose strutting Satanist is the best reason to catch Drive Angry, a picture that actually is enlivened by Nicolas Cage). As the movie dwindles down to its sputtering conclusion, our hearts go out to these doomed performers. When one of them says “I don’t want you to see me like this,” we feel his professional pain.
Kurt Loder is a writer, among other things, embedded in New York.
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