If there’s one thing Catherine Hardwicke can do, it’s film moody shots of giant trees and dark-haired boys like nobody’s business. In fact, that seems to be her specialty, as Red Riding Hood is full of shots of skulking hunks hanging out in a vaguely Pacific Northwestern-looking faux Eastern European forest.
Yes, there’s an awful lot of Twilight that shows up in Red Riding Hood, right down to the teenage heroine torn between two boys of fairly equal desirability, if not equal social standing. However, rather than having to choose between a werewolf and a vampire, the lovely Valerie (Amanda Seyfried) has to choose between a poor but handsome woodcutter named Peter (Shiloh Fernandez) and a rich but handsome blacksmith named Henry (Max Irons). What’s a girl to do?
Well, when your town is beset upon by a werewolf (and has been for generations), what you probably shouldn’t do is get in the way of werewolf hunter extraordinaire, Father Solomon (Gary Oldman). Nor should you somehow attract the attention of said werewolf, for that matter. Yet, Valerie does both of these things, all the while menaced by the thought of marriage to the blacksmith she doesn’t love, versus the woodcutter she loves.
Yes, the core of Red Riding Hood is a teenage romance with a youthful female protagonist, just like Twilight. And yes, the town in which Valerie and company live is a strangely isolated small town in the middle of a nebulous forested area I like to call the ‘the Middle Ages vaguely old Western Pacific Northwest Romania-Bulgarian empire’, much like Twilight‘s ‘vaguely Pacific Northwestern Oregon-California-Canada’.
Also, like Twilight, there’s also a strange collection of multi-racial characters stuck seemingly in the middle of what should rightfully be the whitest town in the universe, except rather than being Bella Swan’s friends, they’re Gary Oldman’s multi-racial monster squad, featuring random Asian knife-fighter, the African brothers brothers, and, of course, giant bearded white man.
The one real difference between Twilight and Red Riding Hood is the fact that Red Riding Hood‘s protagonist is played by one of the best young actresses working today, the visually stunning Amanda Seyfried. It’s not so much that she’s attractive on screen (she is, given how well the red of her riding hood contrasts with her blond hair and pale skin), but it’s that she’s blessed with a set of the most expressive, limpid eyes since Bette Davis. She’s the polar opposite of Kristen Stewart in every possible way, and that’s what makes Red Riding Hood better than Twilight, despite the two being almost the same movie (and both featuring Billy Burke as the heavy-drinking dad).
It also helps Red that the rest of the movie’s cast is pretty solid, from Virginia Madsen and the underrated Burke as Valerie’s parents, to Gary Oldman chewing up every piece of wooden scenery he can as the pious semi-villain of the film. There’s not a real standout bad performance in the film, though Shiloh Fernandez can summon no chemistry with Amanda Seyfried and this film, like most films, could have used a whole lot more Gary Oldman. Still, there’s not a whole lot of stuff for most of the actors to do, with Seyfried getting the interesting parts.
The script was written by David Johnson, who scripted Orphan. Red Riding Hood has many of the same flaws as Orphan, right down to the implausible third act. Specifically, the ending of Red Riding Hood is a major strike against the film, and it kind of brings down the whole rest of the movie. It’s literally forehead slapping, and it reinforces all of the worst messages teenagers get in the current culture. Don’t get me wrong, Red Riding Hood is never great, but it’s entertaining enough, and considering its genre of film (teen romance), that’s saying something.
As for Hardwicke’s craftsmanship, she seems to have grown a bit as a director. There’s better pace here than there was in Twilight, and there’s even a few sequences in the forest that evoke some menace, even if it is all undone by the CGI werewolf. While it is not completely successful in reinventing a folk tale for a more adult (teenage) audience, it at least tries to do something with the old story without completely destroying the source.