I knew good girls aren’t supposed to hunt rabbits or go out in the woods alone.
—Valerie (Amanda Seyfried)
As a child, Valerie (Megan Charpentier) is slightly less than good. Sent by her mother to “go get water,” she leaves her bucket by the bubbling stream and heads into the woods with the boy she adores, a cute woodcutter’s son name Peter (DJ Greenburg). Enchanted when he helps her set up a rabbit trap, Valerie catches her breath as she pulls the string to capture their prey, brown and white and furry. Peter pulls out a shiny blade. Could life be any more thrilling?
The scene cuts at this moment in Red Riding Hood, then opens “10 years later,” when Valerie is played Amanda Seyfried and her object of affection by Shiloh Fernandez. They’re still meeting in the woods in secret, only this time she’s stealing away his axe, then teasing him with it, daring him to take it from her. The game doesn’t actually look like much fun, being so familiar and metaphorically weighty, but Valerie’s young and wide-eyed and in love, drawn to what’s forbidden, and especially, resentful that her mother, Suzette (Virginia Madsen), has arranged for her to marry Henry (Max Irons), a boy she barely knows. It doesn’t matter that Henry is a very nice boy: his father is wealthy and Suzette is adamant.
Thus Valerie is cast between two love objects, much like Bella, the very model of movie franchise stardom, conjured, in part, by the new film’s director, Catherine Hardwicke. There’s something creepy about the two girls sharing the same father, namely, Billy Burke. Here, as Cesaire, he looks especially wan and miserable, a heavy drinker apparently crushed by years of living under his wife’s stern authority. That, and oh yes, suffering the murder of his oldest daughter by the local werewolf.
This is where Twilight meets the Brothers Grimm, in the combination of odium and seduction embodied by the wolf. But while Jacob (Taylor Daniel Lautner) is notoriously handsome and hard-abbed, the human identity of the wolf in Red Riding Hood is unknown until film’s end. It appears periodically in large black form, menacing the village and reportedly quite demanding: the deal the villagers have made, for 20 years, is to offer up goats and sheep and such in exchange for their own lives. When the girl’s body shows up, bloody and ravaged (or maybe just scratched across her chest), locals are horrified. The men form a posse, heading off half-drunk and wholly angry into the woods in pursuit of some payback. Of course they believe, when they come upon a regular gray wolf, that they’ve found the monster. And of course, when they bring back the wolf’s head, feeling triumphant, they will only be disappointed.
As the supernatural story is focused through Valerie’s romantic travails, Red Riding Hood is mostly a jumble of clichés. She does have a grandmother (Julie Christie) and she does have a bright red cloak, and she also has concerns about whom she might trust: at one point, in bed with grandma, she does pose that most pertinent and nonsensical set of questions: “Grandmother, what big eyes you have!”, and etc. While this leads to something like a revelation (rendered with big music and soft-focused close-ups), it has more to do with your frustration with Valerie’s utter insipidness than with your sympathy.
If Valerie’s troubles seem to begin with her sister’s death (at which point she pretty much gives up the idea of running away with Peter and instead stays home to feel threatened along with everyone else), they’re compounded when the wolf shows up and speaks to her, using the same stilted and unconvincing language as everyone else in the movie (“You can’t escape from me!” or again, “You and I are the same!”). Or rather, the wolf seems to speak to her, telepathically, an event witnessed by a fearful best friend (Shauna Kain) and soon used against her, when the villagers come to believe she’s a witch.
They’re encouraged in this thinking by one Father Solomon (Gary Oldman, who for a few minutes, and to his credit, seems to be acting in a very different movie than everyone else). He arrives with much fanfare (courtesy of a proto-fanboy played by Lukas Haas) and a much-reported history with the werewolf. As he tells it, the creature lives among the human population, a point of particular pain for him, as his wife was indeed a werewolf and he killed her, not knowing at the time she was his target. Now something of a John Walsh for medieval times, he travels from beset village to beset village, sharing his own tale of woe and offering to kill the next incarnation of the werewolf. He even brings along his adorable daughters, who pop out of his carriage to cry and fret, then be sent away, unaware of their father’s dark past regarding their mother.
Father Solomon issues dire warnings and shows off his minions, the Captain (Adrian Holmes) and the Captain’s brother (Matt Ward). That these are the only black men in sight is certainly striking, as is the fact that they’re employed as expendable muscle. While they’re supposedly expert and devoted monster killers, they’re inexplicably surprised by their prey when it counts, and so occasion a brief moral dilemma for Father Solomon, one that demonstrates his ruthlessness, not exactly something of which you need to be reminded. Even back in these re-imagined olden days, it appears the black guys must only look beautiful and exotic and then expire.
At least they don’t have to spend much time with Valerie, whose vacillations over which boy to like and which villager to suspect of being the werewolf are tedious from the start. Again and again, the girl makes silly choices, wandering through the snowy forest (shot from overhead so her red garment is absolutely vivid against the wide whiteness), arguing with her mother or submitting to her grandmother, and gazing from one suitor to another, her gigantic blue eyes less expressive than glassy. You’d think the boys would grow impatient with her indecision, not to mention her weird affiliation with the werewolf. But no: here as elsewhere, pale girls who parley with scary monsters are all the rage.