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Wink and Nod 

There's a huge problem with Hoodwinked, and it isn't the one suggested by its trailers and posters. Or by the double-meaning of the scene in the film where Little Red Riding Hood (Anne Hathaway) comments to the wolf (Patrick Warburton) in Granny's clothing, "Your face looks weird."

Okay, we in the entertainment media have been just as guilty as anyone of paying way too much attention to technological advances in computer-animated features. We dutifully regurgitated breathless studio press releases about the latest cutting-edge hair-toss in Shrek 2, or the motion-capture automotons of The Polar Express. Pixar didn't become a beacon of brilliance because of bits and bytes, but because of a commitment to story and character development. It's time to stop equating this arms race for a more convincing virtual eye-twitch with advances in cinema, but that won't stop plenty of people from knocking Hoodwinked because its characters make Jimmy Neutron and Rolie Polie Olie look like the state of the art.

That's a shame, because this simple-minded cartoon deserves to be pilloried not for its "look Ma, I made it in my basement on your old Commodore 64" production values, but for falling victim to that other contemporary kid-flick game of can-you-top-this: the obsession with being ever more hip and pop-culture savvy. It's silly enough that brothers Cory and Todd Edwards (the Sundance '99 entry Chillicothe) and writing partner Tony Leech have attempted to turn the Red Riding Hood story into a fairy-tale Rashomon. The disturbance at Granny's place draws the attention of frog detective Nick Flippers (David Ogden Stiers), who interviews all four of the major players in the story. And each one of them -- Red, the wolf, Granny (Glenn Close) and the woodsman (James Belushi) -- sees the events from a slightly different angle.

Don't expect the multiple-perspectives concept to matter all that much. Hoodwinked isn't about anything more than cobbling together attempts to appear cooler than the room, most of which land with an audible clunk. Poor frail little Granny is actually an extreme sports junkie, which is intrinsically hilarious because we've all learned from movies and television that senior citizens doing incongruous things (swearing, having sex, engaging in physical activity without breaking a hip) = laugh riot. The woodsman turns out to be an aspiring actor, offering plenty of opportunities for nudging gags about the film industry. Andy Dick provides the voice of weird little bunny named Boingo, and everything Dick ever does feels like it's in quotes. There's no real interest in what's happening to the characters; attitude triumphs over all.

Amazingly, the only thing presented without irony is a wholesale theft of Disney's "I want something more" heroines who break into song while prancing through nature. And the original songs (also by the brothers Edwards) are at least something original. One of them, "Red Is Blue", actually feels momentarily like an attempt to develop a character -- until the film snaps out of its brief bout of genuineness and returns to the world of winks and arched eyebrows.

There are a few amusing moments with a hyperactive squirrel reminiscent of Ice Age's Scrat. Warburton's deadpan lunkhead delivery -- used to such perfection in The Emperor's New Groove -- continues to be an entertaining diversion in almost anything, making him a voiceover MVP if ever there was one. But it's telling that even the moderately decent stuff feels recycled from other, more interesting animated entertainments. And nearly every other gag -- e.g., the three-billionth use of a character rattling off unflattering comments about a villainous figure, concluding with, "He's standing right behind me, isn't he?" -- borders on the criminally lame.

Hoodwinked may just be the latest example -- but perhaps the worst -- of animated films substituting references for wit. The Edwardses seem to be operating under the principle that we'll be entertained by association -- by remembering that Stiers also did the opening narration for Beauty and the Beast, for example -- rather than innovation. That innovation doesn't need to come from a CGI face that expresses more emotion than any that has come before. I'd settle for a script that any expresses emotion besides smugness.

click to enlarge Little Red Riding Hood (voice by Anne Hathaway) gets more - than a little lost in the woods in Hoodwinked.
  • Little Red Riding Hood (voice by Anne Hathaway) gets more than a little lost in the woods in Hoodwinked.
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