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Reviewed by:
  • Red Riding Hood
  • Sara Thompson (bio)
Red Riding Hood. Directed by Catherine Hardwicke. Written by David Leslie Johnson. Performed by Amanda Seyfried, Gary Oldman, Billy Burke, Shiloh Fernandez, Max Irons, Virginia Madsen, Lukas Haas, and Julie Christie. Warner Brothers Films, 2011. Theatrical release.

"Hello: I'm Gary Oldman, and I've brought my elephant to save the day."

Posters for Catherine Hardwicke's Red Riding Hood call it "a breathtaking vision of a 700 year old legend." They lie: Pretentious, confused, and stuffed with fairy-tale tropes that add nothing, this vision is less breathtaking than laughable.

Set, nominally, in our own world's past—characters reference the Catholic Church and ancient Romans—the film tries for that anyplace sense that [End Page 135] classic fairy tales evoke with once-upon-a-times. Opening shots move past a medievalish CGI castle and walled town, out over a river valley, and deep into dark woods, in which huddles the little village where the story occurs. Unfortunately, the shots are disorienting—oddly angled above the river, for example—and distract from the otherwise impressive set design. The narrator-heroine is Valerie (Amanda Seyfried), whose opening voiceover notes that "few people know" her village's name, but "everyone had heard of the horrible things that happened there."

The premise is decent. The talking, grandmother-impersonating wolf of the fairy tale is here a shape-shifter, a werewolf who has terrorized the area for generations (Valerie's grandmother remembers it from her own youth) and with whom the villagers have struck a bargain: It spares humans if they provide livestock at each full moon. (No one mentions how the bargain was reached, given that the wolf can't talk to anyone. A quibble? Not when the wolf's language capability is the hinge on which the plot hangs.) In the uneasy peace, Valerie has grown up in love with orphaned woodcutter Peter, but she is now promised by her parents to the wealthy blacksmith's son, Henry. About to elope, Valerie and Peter are interrupted when the werewolf breaks the pact, killing Valerie's sister Lucy and then a man in the hunting party sent to avenge her. The village priest sends for a famed werewolf hunter, who eventually uses Valerie as bait to catch the wolf. In the end, the girl in the red cloak and the woodcutter kill the villain.

It is a relatively inventive revision of the basic story. Aging the heroine to her late teens allows for a romantic subplot, and if it had stayed a subplot, the film might have been better off. But the problem with Red Riding Hood is that too much is going on, and none of it is subplot and all of it is badly executed.

The acting wavers from decent (Seyfried) to bland and unconvincing (the parents and both suitors, Fernandez having apparently been talked into allowing hair product, leather, and a slight sneer to stand in for actual acting) to scenery-chewing camp. That last is Gary Oldman's wolf-hunting Father Solomon, whose rapidly shifting accents are among the few true horrors of the movie and suggest that he's from everywhere; all villagers, by contrast, sound American. Oldman, normally a gifted actor whose performance has rescued more than one lackluster film, is here as inconsistent and incoherent as the script itself; his growls and gesticulating pronouncements recall Alan Rickman but aren't intended to be funny. A warrior-priest in a purple velvet frock whose first werewolf kill was his own wife, Solomon travels with two terrified-looking daughters, an elderly nursemaid, and a solar-system-in-a-box that shows that this full moon allows werewolves to pass on their curse. His problematically racialized mercenaries include two African brothers (the only black men in [End Page 136] the film), a medieval ninja, and a vaguely Arabic soldier who looks more embarrassed than intimidating as he enters town astride a giant metal elephant.

An elephant. Hollow, huge, and goofy-looking, it is an Athenian Brazen Bull, an oven in which victims' screams become animal bellows as steam escapes through metal horns. That Father Solomon erroneously credits the Romans is...


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