When the girl — a big girl; hence the loss of the diminutive in the title — with the red riding hood comes face to face with a talking wolf, she is amazed. One reason, certainly, is that it's a talking wolf; the loquaciousness of lycanthropes is not exactly a widely encountered phenomenon. But the greater amazement is that the wolf calls her Valerie. “You know my name,” she gasps, the way we did earlier in the film when we learnt the name that the Brothers Grimm omitted to supply their heroine, lazily referring to her simply by the colour of her costume.
Whatever the other faults with this overwrought tale, the director Catherine Hardwicke at least enriches us with that minor detail. We know now. The girl with the brightly coloured cowl has a name, and it's from the Steve Winwood song about a man pining for his now-lost love — a song that could well have played over this film's closing credits.
I say this only partly in jest, for Red Riding Hood is a strange mishmash of the medieval and the modern. The template of the old fairy tale is updated with newfangled revisionist flourishes that include nods to witch trials, star-crossed werewolf-infested teen-love triangles, and perhaps even the story of Christ, at the point he was defamed and dragged past unsympathetic neighbours, after which he merely forgave his enemies.
The film opens with the white expanse of snow on a mountainside. We then get the greens of coniferous trees, the browns of wooden cottages in a village situated at the edge of a dark forest, the yellow of flames that illuminate this old world, even the pink of a squealing piglet facing the prospect of slaughter. But where, apart from the brief flash of the title, is the red?
Gradually, we realise it's in the herrings. Hardwicke has shaped her source material into one of those closed-chamber murder mysteries where everyone around is painted in guilty colours in order to keep you from guessing who really dunit. No sooner than Valerie (Amanda Seyfried, with the face of a younger, riper Michelle Pfeiffer) decides to elope with Peter (Shiloh Fernandez), a woodcutter who wields a long axe that she's fond of fondling, the church bells erupt in ominous peals. As she races to the spot where everyone has gathered and learns that the wolf has struck again, we steel ourselves for the sight of mutilated faces and mangled limbs. But the victim lies in serene repose. But for the congealed blood beneath her head, she could be sleeping. What kind of self-respecting carnivore would eschew consuming its prey?
But it's no mere wolf. It's a werewolf — and the film wants us to hold our breath about who, in this village, swaps his (or her) human skin for black fur upon the appearance of a full moon. Whose point of view do we assume when the shaky camera follows Valerie around as she goes about her innocent business?
A simple cautionary tale about the dangers of talking to strangers has been imbued with all sorts of Significance. The colour in the title alone could mean anything from the red scare of communism (which resulted in witch hunts of its own) to the spilling of virginal blood. If a reasonably gripping whodunit is what you're after, why reach for a fairy tale and burden it with so much psychological and political weight? Whatever next? Humpty Dumpty sat on the Berlin Wall?
Red Riding Hood
Director: Catherine Hardwicke
Cast: Amanda Seyfried, Gary Oldman, Shiloh Fernandez
Storyline: A teen love triangle beset by a big, bad wolf
Bottomline: Why burden a simple fairy tale with metaphorical weight?
Keywords: Red Riding Hood film review