The bluenose brigade at the Motion Picture Association of America has stamped Red Riding Hood with a PG-13 (parental guidance for children under 13 years) rating for “violence and creature terror, and some sensuality”. Certainly this goofily amusing fairy tale includes bloodshed, but it’s generally tamer than its often-gruesome source.
The creature terror isn’t remotely frightening, though the designated moustache twirler (and scene chewer) Gary Oldman tries to rustle up scares. As to sensuality, Amanda Seyfried as You-Know-Who makes a delectable treat whether heaving her bosom or boogieing down in a bacchanal that’s more Burning Man than Bruegel.
A delectable treat: Amanda Seyfried plays the film’s heroine.
At this point in her movie career Seyfried hasn’t often been asked to do more than hit her marks and deliver her lines, which she does appealingly here . What she mostly brings to her movies is otherworldly, unthreatening beauty—she has the saucer eyes and heart-shaped face of an anime pixie—and that elusive gift of cinematic presence. When she’s on camera, she draws all eyes to her, something that the director here, Catherine Hardwicke, grasps. Hardwicke is an uneven, at times careless film-maker, but as she showed in movies such as Thirteen and the first Twilight, she is attuned to beauty and has a way with young actors, tapping their energy so it buzzes on screen.
From the start, Hardwicke tries to make the case that this isn’t your granny’s favourite fairy tale. The story opens with its heroine, Valerie, as a child, strolling about in trousers (the other girls are in dresses) while in voice-over Seyfried insists that she tried to be a good girl. But goodness had nothing to do with it. Before long Valerie has run off with a boy pointedly named Peter , and they’re frolicking in the forest and snaring a rabbit. Valerie urges Peter to slay the animal, but he can’t or won’t, and the sequence ends with her holding a knife to the bunny like a natural-born killer.
The suggestion that Red Riding Hood might be as much predator as prey isn’t new. She may be the intended victim, but she’s also the one who (after sizing up the wolf in bed) ends triumphant. It’s this blurring between the antagonists as well as the flexibility of the story’s morals and meanings that make it work well for different readers and writers. In the 17th century Charles Perrault turned an oral folk tale into Le Petit Chaperon Rouge, and later Angela Carter gave the story a wicked, feminist spin. Hardwicke doesn’t acknowledge Carter’s brilliant retelling but it’s probable that she read it or saw Neil Jordan’s dreary 1984 adaptation.
But, my, what sharp teeth Hardwicke doesn’t have: working from David Leslie Johnson’s screenplay, she takes on the story’s grown-up themes of sex and death directly but weakly. This might be because the movie has been pitched at young adults, as evidenced by its pretty leads, electronic soundtrack, contemporary vibe and veneer, and caution. Some of the updating works—a proto-hippie witchy woman, the grandmother now rocks the screen in dreadlocks— but at other times the modern touches feel like sloppiness or even pandering. It’s hard to know if Hardwicke, a former production designer, didn’t notice that the clothing looks straight from the costume department, or whether she (or her producers) didn’t want to turn off their presumptive audience with anything, you know, old.
©2011/THE NEW YORK TIMES
Red Riding Hood released in theatres on Friday.