Once upon a time, in the middle of a dark forest so twisted that the trees sprouted thorns instead of branches, good-looking villagers were stalked by a terrible beast. Legend said it was a werewolf, but the real monster was a franchise called Twilight .
The definitive Brothers Grimm version of Little Red Riding Hood was the ultimate don’t-talk-to-strangers warning: a tale of moral peril about a curious girl who dared to leave her mother’s approved pathway. “Red-Cap” was “a dear little girl who was loved by every one who looked at her,” especially an “old sinner” like the wolf. The Wolf lured that “plump morsel” into bed with a bit of kinky role-playing, then devoured her whole.
In the age of the empowerment ballad (whether Pink or Gaga), the story was ripe for reinvention. And who better to realize that than director Catherine Hardwicke (Thirteen, The Nativity Story, The Lords of Dogtown), a master of languid, submerged sexuality and misunderstood teenage identity. It’s just too bad they didn’t get her before she birthed the box-office juggernaut Twilight back in 2008. Because based on Red Riding Hood, Hardwicke seems imprisoned by its immense success. Her latest film is such an obvious copy of her vampire epic, it barely exists on its own: Once again, a heroine is trapped by her virginal sex appeal and pursued by two dangerous but ultimately nice hunks. And once again, there’s a werewolf.
Like Bella Swan, Amanda Seyfried’s Valerie is a swooning obsessive who is ultimately a bystander to her own life, whose beauty is power and whose only important choice is who she will marry. “You’re the pretty one,” says her mother. “Always too good… too perfect… too pretty,” says a vicious friend. Her parents have arranged a marriage with the town’s handsome rich boy (Max Irons), but soon the whole village knows she’s fooling around with the raven-haired woodsman (a very Robert Pattisonesque Shiloh Fernandez). As in Twilight, the temptation of two boys — one of whom seems bad but isn’t — is the thrill. And there is ample opportunity for young girls in the audience to drool over their respective pectorals, given they wear unbuttoned, rock-star tunics even in the bitterest snow storms. (For the boys, a celebratory bonfire dance plays like a medieval Skins montage, replete with girl-on-girl groping.)
Seyfried has as much fun as she can with Valerie; she relishes her passion in a way Kristen Stewart’s Bella never would. (“I know good girls aren’t supposed to go into the woods,” says a wide-eyed Valerie, shortly before flirtatiously playing with the woodsmen’s phallic axe.) She wears her red hood with Hester Prynne pride, and she does get to strike a fatal blow. But the shadow of Bella can’t be escaped. Similarly, Red Riding Hood has virtues (the stark, stylized visuals; a scenery-shredding turn by Gary Oldman as a religious werewolf hunter), yet it ends with such a naked attempt at launching a franchise, that any good evaporates. You might say that Twilight has sucked the life right out of it.