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'Red Riding Hood' Gets 'Twilight' Spin

6:00 PM PST 3/9/2011 by Todd McCarthy

The Bottom Line

Lame transformation of a fairy tale into a horror whodunnit will ensnare its eagerly awaiting young female audience.

Amanda Seyfried stars as the title character with Shiloh Fernandez as her love interest in the David Leslie Johnson-penned film, opening in theaters Friday.

A film of grimm banality, Red Riding Hood puts a bloodthirsty Twilight spin on a fairy tale already possessed of an unusually macabre climax. As it thuds along from one wolf attack to the next, Catherine Hardwicke's first film since taking leave of Bella and her toothy friends adamantly refuses to provide any wit, humor or fun, concerning itself mostly with the heroine's taxing dilemma of picking between the rural village's two best looking boys. Still, with Warner Bros. delivering a massive campaign aimed at a ready-and-drooling target audience, some big opening numbers lie in wait.

Red Riding Hood is in the vanguard of what appears to be an onslaught of live-action fairy tale-derived studio features over the next year or so. What triggered this trend remains unclear, but one can only hope that the level of cleverness and invention improves, as things hardly get off to an inspired start here.

Restricting the action almost entirely to a small Ruritanian community where everyone but the visiting Gary Oldman speaks in mundane American accents, the script by David Leslie Johnson (Orphan) pivots on two central creative ploys — to turn a mere wolf into a werewolf and to transform the ancient story into a whodunnit in which the lovely young Valerie (Amanda Seyfried) must figure out who among the locals nocturnally mutates into the massive black hound that killed her sister and converses to her, hoping she'll run away with it.

Is it Peter (Shiloh Fernandez), the cute but poor woodcutter who has been her true love since childhood and himself would love to take her away? Might it possibly be his rival, Henry (Max Irons), the prosperous blacksmith Valerie's mother (Virginia Madsen) has arranged for her to marry? Could it be Dad (Billy Burke, the sad-sack father from “Twilight”), who boozes it up with regularity? Or, heaven forbid, is the wolf perhaps Grandma herself (Julie Christie), a bohemian eccentric who lives on her own out in the forest and has yellowish-brown eyes quite like those of the wolf itself?

Officially taking charge of the case once the wolf begins attacking humans for the first time in 20 years is Father Solomon (Oldman), an itinerant werewolf hunter in cleric's robes who resembles his Biblical namesake far less than he does Torquemada, so convinced is he that his inquisitional techniques can elicit a confession of lycanthropy.

As in Thirteen, The Nativity Story and Twilight before it, Red Riding Hood allows Hardwicke to focus on the emotional trials of a teenager thrust unceremoniously onto the rocks of extreme grown-up dilemmas and feeling her way toward solutions.

Unfortunately, the context here is hokier than in any of the director's previous films and, as she's not a stylist or genre specialist, she has little to bring to this sort of material other than a natural empathy for the lead character. The dialogue exchanges possess no spark, the action is indifferently covered by random camera moves and cuts and the only jolts are provoked by cheap shock-cuts to the growling or roaring wolf.

The only memorable image is the fortunately frequently appearing one of Seyfried with her blond hair flowing from beneath the eponymous scarlet cloak that matches her pillow lips. Otherwise, the young actress has seen better days than this before and assuredly will again. The local men are boringly one-note but the casting of Christie was smart, as she bestows her iconoclastic spirit upon the ambiguous grandma.

The Vancouver-shot production, mostly confined to a studio set, has a rather dreary look spiced here and there by unusual production and costume design details that lend modern touches.