What does it mean to revisit old stories well? What to the two active female protagonists of the following films share? Red hoods (Significant. Pay attention to the chicks in red.) and revision, but humor on one hand and coy angst on the other.
Red Riding Hood, by the folks who brought you the Twilight series, is just that. Twilight + a red cape. Watching it with that mindset, the film is relatively enjoyable. The acting is mostly apropos to a late-teen adventure angst-ridden romance, except Shiloh Fernandez, who plays the dark brooding Peter with such a lack of skill that I cringed every time he delivered a line. Amanda Seyfried did what she does best, which is use those enormous eyes to reflect the wealth of lust, fear, angst, and determination that define her Red. Gary Oldman was underused, playing a trope of a character that he bravely tried to make suit him. The saving grace of the film was really Julie Christie, who’s Grandma crackles with energy. So the film is what it is. A tempestuous teenage version of a classic fairy tale.
Using an old plot in a new way is standard storytelling (just ask Shakespeare…and I’ll get to that soon) and no one loves it more than Hollywood. The revision of the Grimm fairy tale uses names and and roles (Peter, our Red’s love interest, is a woodcutter) but changes the plot.
Just like with vampires, using standard horror/fairy tale stories but plugging people into new roles and reshaping the narrative is a chance to reflect our current culture and give a distinct ideology. The big problems with Red are not only that the film makes poor choices, but that the choices are muddled. It’s as if there was an attempt at making a point, but no clear message is actually made.
One spends the vast majority of the film trying to figure out who the Big Bad Wolf (a werewolf…shocker) really is. It’s someone in the village. It’s someone who knows her.
So we set up the wolf as more than a nameless badman. Great choice. Now, who should this nameless badman be, and why should he/she be so destructive? Why is the wolf evil? Spoiler alert: Peter becomes a big bad wolf. But he is redeemable. So even if you are infected with evil, you are redeemable. Sure, cool theme. But the treatment of these themes is not thought out well. One would assume that a filmmaker would be aware of the way that characters and plot convey an ideology, that’s film class 101. So why is it done so poorly? The scarlet hood could have been used nicely to reference a scarlet A. The plot hinted at this, but never followed through, and it was simply not well executed.
One more note on Red Riding Hood: the art direction was nice. That’s why I decided to see it. It didn’t save the experience.
Previous to Red, I sat through a lovely 90 minutes of corporate filmmaking called Gnomeo and Juliet. Perhaps expectation is a great deal of the movie experience. I was hoping the film would be quirky and clever, and such it was. But it also had a greenhouse and plants, which added to my happiness significantly. Directory Kelly Asbury has worked on a host of animated features, including Shrek 2, and Gnomeo and Juliet is a distant cousin to the Shrek films. How? Shrek’s brilliance was taking a fairy tale idea and giving it a nice plot twist, then infusing it with so many comic pop culture references that adults are entertained on a different level. The same things happens in Gnomeo, with very passable Shakespeare jokes thrown in.
The reason Gnomeo works so well is because one of the magical things in good animation is being able to give cartoon characters a believable persona, and good chemistry. James McAvoy and Emily Blunt do lovely jobs infusing the title characters with life, and call me a romantic, but I did get caught up in the romance of the two ceramic lawn ornaments. Yes, I did.
And maybe it’s partly because according to a book owned by my niece, I live in a house that is doubtless infested by gnomes (I fit all the characteristics: I live alone, near woods, in a drafty house. This explains so much about my life. If you’d like to find out more about the book, check out http://www.scribd.com/doc/35974218/How-to-Survive-a-Garden-Gnome-Attack-by-Chuck-Sambuchino-Excerpt). Or because the action of the film takes place in gardens, and it’s March and gardening is largely on my mind. Or because I love good revisions of Shakespeare. Going into the film, the treatment of Shakespeare’s uberclassic was my major point of curiosity. Characters were used well. Plot was nicely executed. The choices made sense, and even though one could easily assume what the ending would be, there was still joy in getting there.
So what was the ending? Surely not a tragic double suicide. Well of course not. This is a film for children. (Point: why don’t we give children tragedies? The Grimm Brothers sure did. And while Red Riding Hood was graphic, the ending was…well, romanced up. Stories are how we come to understand life, and tragedy plays a role in our expectations for life. Sometimes rash decisions made in lust have heavy consequences.) In fact, the film addresses this very cleverly. Since all inanimate objects are anthropomorphised, what better than to have Gnomeo chat with a statue of Shakespeare? The bard confesses that Gnomeo’s story is “familiar” but the story he wrote had an unhappy ending. Gnomeo is downcast. Surely that won’t happen to him and his Juliet (of course it won’t). Suddenly Gnomeo falls from the Bard’s head, about to smash into smithereens on the sidewalk below. (Note: one of the lovely production aspects of the film was sound. The statues sounded ceramic, and would clink around, selling the idea they were real.) But he is saved when his friend, a pink lawn flamingo, slides under him in the nick of time. Saved by 20th century petroleum products. Fill in your own interpretation of that message. The nice thing is, the film plays with reference and expectation so well that one can begin to draw ideological conclusions. And in the meantime, enjoy the well placed references like “Taming of the Glue” on an adhesive label.
Juliet wears a red hood (Gnomeo a blue one, and the “families” at odds are the members of two color coded gardens). Here the color red, always a signifier of some kind, gives her a hearts and flowers connotation, and Gnomeo’s blue is pale but not pansy. She’s significant because of her love. Red Riding Hood because of her lust, her position as the target. They both grab attention, for better or worse, depending on why you’re at the movies and whether you are more favorable to wolves or gnomes.
Our fairy tales say so much about who we are and what we want. For myself, I prefer Gnomes and big bad grandmas.