Best trip to Grandma’s House ever.
In a remote village near a dark wood, a girl named Valerie (Amanda Seyfried) makes plans to run off with her childhood playmate Peter (Shiloh Fernandez) before she can be made to marry an arranged suitor, Henry (Max Irons). Before they can make their escape, Valerie’s sister is killed by a werewolf, breaking a truce with the village that has kept the creature at bay for generations. With the rare occurrence of a blood moon in the night sky, a renowned beast slayer for the church, Father Solomon (Gary Oldman), is summoned to do battle with the beast. After a mob of vengeful hunters tracks down and kills a common wolf, Solomon warns them that the beast they have slain is not the one they should fear… rather, the one secretly hiding among them in plain sight.
The story is timeless; a girl with a red hood goes to grandma’s house with a basket of goodies, and then the big bad wolf attacks just before being slain by a helpful woodcutter. By taking the children’s story audiences know and fleshing out the details, there’s an almost Tim Burton directorial feel of theatrical atmosphere similar to Sleepy Hollow. Sure, there’s the teen romance factor (not to mention that director Catherine Hardwicke’s previous work includes the first Twilight), but that’s barely noteworthy other than to provide a sense of kinship to protect the red-hooded heroine from what’s really important: who’s the big bad werewolf? The cast is full of suspects and red herrings, but when the wolf is finally out of the woods, it all makes sense, and that’s where Red Riding Hood succeeds.
Amanda Seyfried carries the story as Valerie with just the expressions on her face and a bit of narration (which is happily used very sparingly). Her suitors aren’t really up to her level, mostly cast to provide something of distraction since “the love interest” isn’t what this film is about. When the wolf first appears for real, someone in the CGI department did their homework; the werewolf looks and moves like a monster wolf should, and the subsequent carnage is awesome to watch. Hardwicke is known for her work as a production designer, and the appearance of the film is exemplary as a result. Veteran character actors including Michael Shanks, Christine Willes, and Michael Hogan populate the village with plenty of suspects and suspicions while players such as Virginia Madsen, Julie Christie, and Billy Burke provide family intrigue for Seyfried’s Valerie. Unlike Burton’s gothic tales, Hardwicke should be rightly credited with allowing classic stage drama to ooze believably onto the screen and to give Gary Oldman yet another opportunity to steal the show.
Fans of Tim Burton films and werewolf horror will find plenty to enjoy herein. Not to be taken altogether too seriously, the production is sprinkled with in-jokes. Watch for “Peter” (and the wolf) as well as three men dressed as pigs (being stalked by a wolf-headed merrymaker) playing to the children’s stories the subject matter is exploiting. Towards the end are a few ‘tweenish delights (such as Valerie’s imagining of a future relationship), but the healthy body count and impressive wolf effects go a long way, especially in light of the recent remake of The Wolfman and those so-called shapeshifters in the Twilight films. Can Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters be far off? Wait… nope, that’s real, folks, and coming soon to a theater near you.
(a three skull recommendation out of four)