The classic story of Little Red Riding Hood has taken on many forms and tones over the years, from the finger-wagging moralism of Charles Perrault to the feminist reinterpretation by Angela Carter in her short story "The Company of Wolves." Catherine Hardwicke's 'Red Riding Hood' is the latest film to feature our fresh-faced heroine and her basket full of goodies. Unlike the screen adaptation of Carter's story by Neil Jordan and even more radical takes on the tale like 'Freeway,' 'Valerie and Her Week of Wonders' and 'Hard Candy,' 'Red Riding Hood' stays firmly in the tween fantasy camp where high Ren Faire drama is the order of the day.
In this iteration of the tale, our cape-wearing heroine is Valerie (Amanda Seyfried), whose village of Daggerthorn is terrorized by a werewolf every full moon. When the beast takes Valerie's older sister as a midnight snack, the villagers call on the notorious werewolf-killer Father Solomon (Gary Oldman) to root out the beast. However, along with his torture devices and heavily armed soldiers, Solomon brings a growing sense of paranoia and fear to the village as he explains to them that the werewolf is probably walking among them as a normal human when it isn't that time of the month. While everyone else runs to bolt their windows and double-lock their doors, Valerie's got a number of problems to grapple with, and a hairy beast is just one. Family skeletons are popping out of all of their closets thanks to her sister's death. She's in love with the smokin' hot woodcutter Peter (Shiloh Fernandez) but her mom wants her to marry the fancy rich kid Henry (Max Irons). Just when things couldn't be more confusing, the wolf corners Valerie and her best friend and tries to convince Valerie to leave town with it. It knows her, it says, and it knows she has a darkness within her as well. Who, of all the people she knows, could be a wolf when the moon grows full? She begins to suspect everyone, and wonders if the wolf is right. Unfortunately, this simple inter-species exchange puts her in more danger than she could have imagined.
Hardwicke is known for hitting the sweet spot when it comes to teen movies, whether critically acclaimed ('Thirteen') or endlessly snarked on ('Twilight'). 'Red Riding Hood' is neither as daring as the former nor as bloodless as the latter. Valerie is not quite a heroine and not quite a damsel in distress, and this push-me-pull-me feeling carries through the entire movie. Its moments of wildness teeter on the edge of silliness, like the party scene where villagers writhe to a song by the fabulous Fever Ray, who's the motionless centerpiece of the shot. At the same time, the sequences are striking visually, if not emotionally. The production design is fantastic, but it still looks and feels like a movie filmed on a set.
The movie is full of sexual symbolism and sensuality, even if it shies away from the deed itself; the very trees bristle with giant thorns that thrust at anyone who passes between them. "I could eat you up," snarls Peter mid-smooch. In her dreams, Valerie's long velvety red cape trails behind her in the snow like blood. It seems like there was a battle behind the scenes over how far the movie would go; even for PG-13, it feels awfully tame.
Julie Christie stands out as Valerie's witchy granny, complete with long grey dreadlocks, but the rest of the cast is wildly uneven. Gary Oldman seems like he's just phoning it in, barely bothering to stop and chew on the scenery. "Time to put on your harlot's robe," he tells Valerie mildly, just before putting her out as bait for the werewolf.
'Red Riding Hood' is a strange brew. Some audiences will find it too mild for their tastes, while others who might have enjoyed the bosom-heaving romance of it all will have been put off by the too-teasing trailers and marketing materials. The plot unravels too quickly and easily to make this journey through the woods entirely satisfying for anyone expecting anything meatier.
[Full disclosure: I interviewed Catherine Hardwicke about 'Red Riding Hood' for the February/March 2011 issue of BUST.]