July 10, 2011

Red Riding Hood (2011)

Probably one of the most famous fairy tales is that of "Little Red Riding Hood", the classic tale of the little girl and the wolf, rooted in European folklore that dates back to the 14th Century. From Perrault's version to the one by the brothers Grimm, there have been countless retellings of the story, all retaining the very basic concept: a girl walks through the woods to deliver food to her grandmother, and faces a wolf who wants to eat her. Multiple interpretations and reworkings have been done as well, with some taking the story as a rite of passage, as a metaphor for natural cycles, and as parable of sexual awakening. This last theme has been the basis for many works of fiction in the last century, like Angela Carter's story "The Company of Wolves" (and subsequent movie version of the same name), and Steven Sondheim's musical "In the Woods". Filmmaker Catherine Hardwicke, director of teen drama films like "Thirteen" and "Twilight", tackles this aspect of the fairy tale in the dark fantasy film "Red Riding Hood". Unfortunately, without good results.

In "Red Riding Hood", Amanda Seyfried plays Valerie, a young woman living in the small village of Daggerhorn, in the dark times of the middle ages. A rebel and free-spirited woman, Valerie is in love with Peter (Shiloh Fernandez), against the wishes of her parents Cesaire (Billy Burke) and Suzette (Virginia Madsen), who have promised her to the wealthy blacksmith Henry (Max Irons). Valerie dislikes Henry, and plans to run away with Peter. Unfortunately, she is forced to put her plan on hold when her older sister Lucie is found killed by the Wolf, a creature who has terrorized the village for years. The townspeople had been offering a monthly sacrifice to the Wolf in exchange for peace, so this murder is a breach of that pact. A group is formed to hunt the Wolf, but while the men succeed in killing a big wolf, Henry's father Adrian (Michael Shanks) is killed in the venture. Still, the townspeople celebrate the killing, but a recently arrived witch hunter, Father Solomon (Gary Oldman), tells them that the real Wolf is not dead, the real Wolf is one of them.

Written by David Johnson, "Red Riding Hood" transforms the classic fairy tale into a story of romance and fantasy with horror undertones, with the little red riding hood becoming a strong willed young woman whose greatest ambition is to be free and run away from the village she lives. Certainly, the premise is an interesting one, with Johnson building up a coming of age story borrowing elements from horror and fantasy in order to give a new spin to the familiar plot points of the "Little Red Riding Hood" fairy tale. Johnson's employs these elements to craft a story about finding freedom, with Valerie fighting her way out to win the freedom of being with whomever she wants, living wherever she wants, and ultimately, just being the person she wants to be. Valerie's desire for freedom (emotional, sexual and intellectual freedom), seems to be perfectly suited for teenage drama but, unfortunately, Johnson's blending of genres tries to be many things at once, and the result is a messy plot that ultimately fails to be everything it tried to be.

Nevertheless, "Red Riding Hood" problem is not so much its screenplay (problematic, but not entirely bad), but the execution of it. Director Catherine Hardwicke helms the film right after her commercially successful adaptation of Stephanie Meyer's supernatural tale of teenage romance "Twilight" and it would seem that Hardwicke tried to reproduce, letter by letter, the very same formula. Hardwicke's handling of the screenplay feels tacky, with a lack of care in balancing the diverse elements of the story, and a self-aware desperation to be cool and attractive to teenage audiences. The horror elements fail to be menacing, while the teenage drama fails to be convincing. Hardwicke's narrative is visually impressive (something to be expected, given her experience as production designer) but sadly, void of any attempt of developing the story. The remarkable work of cinematographer Mandy Walker is probably the film's biggest asset, as it does create a haunting atmosphere of fantasy that suits nicely the creepy, Gothic tone the story has.

Acting through the film is a mixed bad, whereas while some cast members do deliver effectively, others are downright bad in their performances. Leading the cast as young Valerie, Amanda Seyfried is quite good in her portrayal of the free-spirited red riding hood. In the movie, Seyfried showcases her talent and actually brings an intensity and convincing realism to her character. Unfortunately, her male counterparts are the complete opposite, with Max Irons and Shiloh Fernandez delivering the film's worst performances. Irons appears weak and misguided in his delivery, as if he was either uncomfortable or indifferent to the movie. Former model Fernandez is downright bad, looking wooden and stiff, unable to portray any emotion other than posing to the camera. Whereas Seyfried delivers natural emotion, Fernandez delivers a quality below high school plays. On the older side of the cast, Gary Oldman overacts in what could be one of his worst performances ever, while Julie Christie's talent gets wasted in several scenes of limited screen time.

Certainly, the lack of a strong male actor to serve as counterpart to Amanda Seyfried's character wouldn't be a problem if romance played a smaller role in the story; but since the romantic triangle is such an integral part of the story, Fernandez' awful work and lack of chemistry with Seyfried are a stab through the heart of "Red Riding Hood". However, while a lot of the blame can be put of Fernandez, it is ultimately Catherine Hardwicke's poor execution what sinks the quite promising premise of "Red Riding Hood". Granted, the film is a visual marvel of design, with vibrant colors and a lavish work of cinematography on its side, but Hardwicke seems more concerned with delivering an attractive product to the teenage audiences that the the film ends having no soul. It's not that making a commercial film is bad (there are countless examples of the contrary), but "Red Riding Hood"'s consciously desperate attempt to look cool and hip results in the movie feeling artificial, shallow, and mediocre.

It's sad that a premise as promising as "Red Riding Hood" resulted in such an uninteresting movie; as even when David Johnson's convoluted mix of horror, fantasy and teenage angst was probably trying to be many things at once, with a greater care it could had resulted in an interesting twist on the classic "Little Red Riding Hood" tale. It certainly had many things to offer, like a strong female character, a nice mystery and a haunting setting. Unfortunately, the direction the film took opted to transform it into a pretty shallow movie of pretty faces, cheap teenage drama and a stylish visual design designed to please the crowds that fell under the spell of "Twilight". Catherine Hardwicke's second venture into supernatural teenage angst is not a bad film, just a quite mediocre one.


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