The lights dim, and after the usual litany of company banners, a camera sweeps over a gorgeous, mountainous landscape. The viewer is immediately thrust into a world that's not metropolitan; this is the look of a nearly untouched terrain of trees. In voiceover, a young girl outlines the particular details of this setting and story before we're greeted by her younger self and her best boy friend. Together, they fling-fall themselves into the grass of a lush, flower-ridden meadow. They're bound by the hunt, but just bunnies, not the werewolves who lurk nearby.

Mix in a few more ingredients like sparkly vampires and melancholy lethargy and this would be the world of 'The Twilight Saga.' But it's not -- it's Catherine Hardwicke's latest, 'Red Riding Hood.'
Though it's no surprise that the filmmaker decided to offer up another bite of teen fare -- her entire directorial resume rests on the trials and tribulations of the young -- it was a twist when news hit that the filmmaker was choosing another overtly supernatural romance. Hardwicke had given up the chance to helm 'The Twilight Saga: New Moon,' but obviously, it wasn't because of the werewolves -- she was ready to dance with a more vicious version of full-moon horror.

The move led to a pressing question: Would Hardwicke learn from her experiences? Would 'Red Riding Hood' improve upon the faults of 'Twilight,' after the filmmaker earned the best opening weekend for a female director, ever?

The answer: Not exactly.

Though many might knock her directorial style, there are certain aspects of filmmaking that Catherine Hardwicke handles beautifully. Unlike the men who took over her 'Twilight' shoes, she understood just how to treat her landscape, overtly relishing the forest-ridden Washington backdrop that initially drew Meyer in. The director made this wet, dreary locale as much a character as the humans and vampires. The rigidly blue hue of the film not only served as a metaphor for Bella's mindset, but also the cold, pale skin of the Cullens and the rainy world of Forks. But even more importantly, her love of adolescent angst shone through the clouds.

Every time Hardwicke talks about her films, her exuberance over teen fare bubbles forth. Attending a Toronto pre-screening for 'Red Riding Hood,' the director gushed about the energy that comes with youth, and how she read 'Twilight' and wanted "to feel what it's like to just be madly in love with somebody." She continued, "I love that feeling where everything is so important." Like 'Twilight,' she had make-out auditions for her Edward-wannabes leads. Overbearing hormones and young lust -- it's a world she thrives in, and though such inclinations might lead to questions about Hardwicke's personal affinity to the theme, it's also an asset to her filmmaking. She's never removed from the material -- that excitement infers everything she creates.

That said, 'Twilight' had its faults -- the foremost of which is the merging of CG and real life. Edward evoked memories of Wile E. Coyote chasing the Roadrunner when he picked Bella up and ran through the woods with her. One could only begin to imagine what would happen when werewolves entered the picture. (A notion that had many convinced that she was fired from installment number two.)

Funnily enough, the werewolf moments aren't so bad in 'Red Riding Hood.' And, though the film starts off like a montage from 'The Twilight Saga,' that's not the issue either. The film's problem is a bit bigger than shoddy CGI: as a whole, it suffers from an identity crisis. The film plays like a wonderfully and ridiculously bad B-movie most of the time, almost as if Hardwicke wanted to reveal a sense of humor about supernatural romance. But sadly, this wasn't the intent. The director meant this to be the darker, scarier 'Twilight' -- real blood and gore replacing the ice and sparkles, while still maintaining its young audience.

For every earnest actor in the piece, two or three more seem to be relishing the ridiculousness, stretching the believability and delivery of their characters to the extreme. Gary Oldman taps spiky, silver nails with little ado, folks make jokey references of the fairy tale's classic lines and two gals even get to do sexy retro folk dancing. Julie Christie thrives as the grandmother, but in part because she doesn't take it too seriously. She knows this isn't 'Away From Her.'

Instead of a brazen bull, Hardwicke created a torturous elephant. When her characters get serious, the audience bellows with laughter. But worst of all, the film doesn't boast a real, lush landscape to house the over-the-top werewolf woe.

'Red Riding Hood' was filmed on a sound stage, one small enough to feel continually suffocating. When the townsfolk disperse, they walk mere steps away, like a walled version of the bare-bones, chalk-outlined setup from 'Dogville.' The setting is like a caged wolf bashing its head against the bars to be let free, always aware that it has but an inch or two of leeway. Mix that with CGI that never looks real, and there's no way to have a robust, larger-than-life story of Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf. And without mindfully playing up the camp, the pitfalls of the production come off poorly, rather than the intended tongue-in-cheek.

Oh, if only they were intended. Girls could relish in the romance that made 'Twilight' a rabid hit, while also having a good laugh at the silliness inherent in heaving bosoms and way-too-serious declarations of love. It could be a modern 'The Evil Dead' for teen romance. As it is, however, 'Red Riding Hood' can only offer up flawed supernatural love destined to inspire a drinking game or two.

One can only hope these shackles don't taint the work of Shakespeare when Hardwicke takes on 'Hamlet,' but even that project seems like a more-of-the-same placeholder until 'Freeheld,' where she finally digs into her first adult drama to tell the true story of Laurel Hester. It's time for Hardwicke to break into new territory.
Based on 37 critics

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