A new take on an old story, Red Riding Hood taps into the current fairytale fantasy and teen paranormal romance zeitgeist. It has its plusses as a story, but ultimately the film lacks bite.
If you’re allergic to spoilers, then stop reading now and come back when you’ve seen the film.
Overall, Red Riding Hood is a fairly good story in a not so good movie. Working with the kernel idea from the traditional folktale adapted by the Brothers Grimm, the movie puts us in familiar territory – a young girl in a red cloak, a big bad wolf, the woods, grandmother’s house and a woodcutter. This time the girl’s is Valerie (Amanda Seyfried). She’s in her late teens, marrying age in these times, and she’s living in a village that has been terrorised for generations by a savage werewolf. Valerie’s in love with Peter (Shiloh Fernandez), the woodcutter, but is arranged to be married to the rich ironsmith Henry (Max Irons).
The wolf kills Valerie’s sister, and the men in the town go out to hunt it, resulting in Henry’s father being killed. Famed werewolf hunter Father Solomon (Gary Oldman) then comes to town to reveal the true identity of the wolf and kill it. As the villagers confront the idea that the werewolf could be any one of them, the wolf hunt becomes a witch hunt, literally and figuratively. I appreciate the premise of the village being torn apart by paranoia and suspicion as everyone starts to suspect everyone else, even those closest to them of being the wolf. I also like the way the film suggests its own possibilities through some clever cinematography and editing, engaging the audience in this game of suspicion. I think though, the movie would have benefited if the extremity of the village paranoia could have been further explored outside Valerie’s immediate experience.
Another thing I like about Red Riding Hood is the wolf. I’m not a great fan of the humanoid wolf beast depiction of werewolves, or weird looking creatures like the werewolves in Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Harry Potter, nor do I like when real wolves are used for werewolves. So this dog, an enormous, black, snarly thing reminiscent of Gmork from The NeverEnding Story, gets a thumbs up from this critic. Visually, my only complaint with the wolf was some of its CGI movements weren’t great. As far as the wolf as a character goes, he was a bit of a disappointment. He was far more effective as a monster before he “spoke” to Valerie, and before the truth is revealed that it’s her father seeking the companionship of his daughters. On this point too, werewolf mythology and the story of Little Red Riding Hood in particular is heavily steeped in sexual symbolism. So having the wolf in this version turn out to be Red’s Dad is more than a little unsettling.
Red Riding Hood smells a bit like Twilight, and not only because Catherine Hardwicke directed both. Like Twilight, a lot of this film is visually over staged, and in some scenes the acting is too hammy to take seriously. Seyfried’s play of Valerie seeing her sister’s body for the first time is almost laughable. Virginia Madsen was appalling as Valerie’s mother, spending most of her time onscreen looking like she had no idea what to do, or where to be. Julie Christie however was great as the grandmother. Christie usually looks remarkably young and this is emphasised in this film, which interfered with the character’s credibility. I still enjoy the character though, she’s a bit of a hermit, with hints of witchcraft about her, but still very maternal. She’s a nice pastiche of fairytale old ladies and an asset to the film. The “grandmother what big eyes you have”, dream sequence was annoying. I can’t figure out if it was an attempt to either be funny or clever by bringing the canonical version into the new tale. Either way, neither worked. And there are more than a few jokes circulating that Amanda Seyfried is probably the last person who should be commenting on the size of someone’s eyes.
Gary Oldman is great regardless of what he’s working with, so it’s not really his fault that Father Solomon’s character was a somewhat underwhelming creation. Solomon is a Van Helsing type of famed monster hunter. He’s a religious man, but at the same time meant to be a savage and relentless killer. I didn’t really buy either. He was almost interesting when Roxanne offers herself to him in exchange for her brother but the scene failed to let this spark of character insight develop. His silver nails are a definite cool factor, and I do love a good looking sword. If Oldman wasn’t behind him, I doubt Solomon would have stood a chance.
Shiloh Fernandez looked the part as the bad boy Peter, even though I suspect he’d been getting hair styling tips from Edward Cullen. His name’s an obvious reference to Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, a tale with numerous similarities to the original Little Red Riding Hood fairytale. I found the reference though to be a bit trite, lessening the character’s impact. His looks and name aside, Fernandez’s delivery was still quite flat and unconvincing. Max Irons was better as Peter’s rival, Henry but not by much. With suitors as weak as this pair, it’s hard to really care who Valerie ends up with in the end.
A lot of critics are applauding the film’s striking visual style, particularly in its use of colour. For me, I think it looked far too much like a film set. There’s a sterility about everything; the costumes were far too colourful and clean, the village was too neat and tidy, all detracting from the impact of the story. The forest trees looked like cardboard cut outs, and those great thorn things on the tree trunks just looked wrong. I kept expecting someone to get impaled on one, and perhaps if they had, I could have understood their purpose.
Cultural Theorist, Kim Hudson gets right into the sexual symbolism in Red Riding Hood and explains these spikes as symbols. She says they are not only symbolic of the dangers in the woods around grandmother’s house, but also phallic symbols in that Valerie has chosen to live amongst them, marking her sexual awakening. This is a generally acceptable argument, but I argue that Valerie is already sexually awakened by the time she decides to live in the woods. It’s unclear if she has actually had sex with Peter, but she was obviously quite willing to earlier in the film in the hayshed, after the dance sequence and probably would have had they not been interrupted. The dance sequence is also evidence of an already blossomed sexuality with her suggestive dancing with her girlfriend.
And while we’re on the dance, the whole scene is fairly troublesome. I understand that the film was striving to create a bacchanalian sensibility with all of those pagan animal masques, wild revelry, fires and erotic dances. Ultimately though, it was weak and distracted from the story. The dance between the two girls was also pathetic. It showed the film was bold enough to go near a vague idea of bisexuality or at least bi-curiosity, but ultimately feared to step over the line into blatant homoeroticism. Maybe though, I should bear in mind the target teenage girl audience and understand that there’d be few Hollywood companies who would tread too far into that territory in a fairytale film. At the very most, the dance scene does serve to illustrate that Valerie doesn’t need to be out in the woods to explore her sexuality. Her sexual self is already well and truly awakened before she lives amongst the phallic spikes, though maybe Hudson’s argument can be saved is saying that Valerie’s sexuality fully blossoms out there in the woods with the Peter, the new werewolf.
Ignoring for a minute the disturbing Freudian analysis of Valerie’s Dad being the wolf, the premise does allow her to have that same wolf blood in her, giving Valerie her own dose of the dark side. This is refreshing to see in a fairytale girl and it is also a comforting point of difference between Valerie and Twilight’s Bella Swan. Valerie is much stronger and more independent than Bella, and she shows no signs of Bella’s destructive co-dependency. Hardwicke describe Little Red Riding Hood “…as one of the few fairy tales in which the girl doesn’t get married in the end and live happily ever after in a wealthy castle with her prince. She still is fierce and independent.”
This is true, and it leads me to wonder if Hardwicke on some level chose to work with the sense of female independence at work in Red Riding Hood in the wake of the masses of criticisms against Twilight and its problematic representations of women.
With all of the Twilight, The Vampire Diaries, True Blood and other examples of paranormal romance texts filling our shelves and screens these days, it’s not hard to understand why the traditional folk tale Little Red Riding Hood was taken up like it was in Red Riding Hood. With such a wealth of symbolism working here, I find it a shame that the film itself detracts so heavily from its own worth as a story. It will be interesting to compare this adaptation with the wave of fairytale movies about to hit our screens. Stay tuned.
by Kate Murphy
© 2011, Kate Murphy