This Week’s Popcorn – “Red Riding Hood”

No big woof

1 popcorn

By Michael S. Goldberger
Special to the Observer

Poor Anonymous. The author has had to sit by all these many centuries while the scribes of every era offered up their present-minded interpretation of his (or her) “Red Riding Hood.”

And poor us if director Catherine Hardwicke’s newest take on the classic fairy tale in any way reflects the mood, temper and mindset of our contemporary culture.

It would mean we are a rather confused bunch living on an obviously limited budget and dominated by moneyed interests who control us through the propagation of superstition and self-serving dogma. You’d think the director could at least afford a better wolf to terrify us. This mangy bit of taxidermy looks like he was torn off the wall of a restaurant.

But our greatest sympathy must go to the film’s target audience, the children in their formative years who really just want to see their teen idols: Amanda Seyfried as Valerie (a.k.a. Little Red Riding Hood); Shiloh Fernandez as Peter, her woodcutter love interest; and Max Irons as Henry, the rich boy mom (Virginia Madsen) really wants her to marry.

It’s bad enough those disingenuous politicians who know a good buck when they see it continually use enough this demography’s educational future to make hay. While not quite as treacherous, making the kids sit through the filmmakers’ pretentious idea of folkloric revisionism in order to espy these pretty faces wastes a chance to teach a thing or two.

That said, welcome to Miss Hardwicke’s Medievalism, a bleak land of thatched roofs, primitive inventions, sack clothing and no shortage of sorrowful foreboding. Upon our arrival, it appears that the wolf, after being a good boy for more than 20 years, has broken his contract. Boy, are we lucky. Imagine if modern state governments did that.

The results are bloody. Afraid and forever at each other’s throats because of the dizzying uncertainty such a broken truce can cause, their world is torn asunder. Thus, divided if not yet conquered, the disarray invites Gary Oldman’s Father Solomon, a self-proclaimed savior, to the fright fest. Claiming full wolf killing certification, he at once sets up shop.

Putting on a Middle Ages version of a medicine show, replete with impressively dressed coterie and intriguing appurtenances, he explains this is no ordinary beast. No, no…only a specialist such as he can rid the little village of Daggerhorn of the werewolf. There, he’s said it: werewolf. And it’s going to cost you. Gee, first the Black Plague and now this.

But not unlike our current demagogues, good at spotting a bad situation and profiting from it by arousing passion and prejudice, it soon becomes apparent Father Solomon only sees this little fiefdom as a stepping-stone. Already gaining a rather impressive reputation throughout the land, we can only guess at the scope and breadth of his sizeable ambitions.

Acting as a catalyst, the fear turned to turmoil unearths and brings to the fore the dark, deep secrets every self-respecting burg inevitably harbors. It seems Valerie’s mother once loved another. Oh the shame, the gossip, and, of course, the adultery. In other words, the sort of stuff regularly fed to us on daytime television. Call it “Housewives of the Middle Ages.”

About a quarter way in, you wonder how anyone could stomach this balderdash. Tut, tut, however. Mind you, tolerance. For the great unwashed should be surprised to know that this superstition-charged shebang belongs to its very own genre. There it is in the major bookstore chain, cordoned off and boldly emblazoned: “Teen Paranormal Romance.”

We’ve come a long way since Andy Hardy sought the good counsel of his esteemed dad, Judge Hardy, when he falls in love with his drama teacher in “Andy Hardy Gets Spring Fever” (1939). Now we take it for granted when the perplexed teenager is enamored of a werewolf, and probably won’t tell her parents until half the town has been wolfed down.

Plodding along as a barely stitched together series of scandalous divulgences and omens, “Red Riding Hood’s” lack of an imaginative plot causes the uninitiated to seek sanctuary in some other aspect of the film. But alas, Miss Hardwicke, who has come to directing by way of a career in production design, creates an artistically disappointing Middle Ages.

The poor acting doesn’t help, either. That’s too bad. An ambitious retelling of the fable, albeit integrated with the bite needed to please young tastes, could have been rewarding. If “Red Riding Hood’s” audience only knew how they’ve been shortchanged, surely they’d exclaim: “Grandma, what big profits you make underestimating our intelligence.”

“Red Riding Hood,” rated PG-13, is a Warner Bros. Pictures release directed by Catherine Hardwicke and stars Amanda Seyfried, Shiloh Fernandez and Gary Oldman. Running time: 100 minutes