Review: Is Christina Ricci's Little Red Riding Hood a feminist take or a directorial mistake?

This 1997 11-minute film Little Red Riding Hood starring Christina Ricci and ballet dancer Timour Bourtasenkov, now on DVD, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and went on to win several honors including the Silver Hugo Award and the Prix Panavision trophy for Best U.S. Short.

Narrated by Quentin Crisp (who has the only speaking role), this black-and-white love letter to German Expressionism is quite beautiful to look at ... but unfortunately it doesn't live up to its legendary status, thanks to some rather jarring, out-of-place puerile dialogue which would be more in step with Taro Gomi's "Everyone Poops."

Written and directed by David Kaplan, Little Red Riding Hood is based upon some pre-Charles Perrault variant of the timeless tale. There's no woodcutter, no last-minute lupine caesarian. Instead, an androgynous, anthropomorphic Wolf (Bourtasenkov) intercepts Little Red (Ricci) on her way to Grandmother's (Evelyn Solann) house, then takes a different, shorter path to beat the young lady to her destination.

When Little Red arrives, her granny is already slaughtered (not swallowed whole, as most of us know from the Grimm version), and the Wolf has not very convincingly disguised himself in the old lady's gown and bonnet. Clueless Little Red eats the gory raw meat on the table, then follows "Granny's" instruction to undress completely and crawl into bed with her.

This film has been lauded as being empowering to women, but to me, the Little Red character seemed incredibly stupid, not to mention very strange: why would any reasonable human being eat bloody intestines and flesh, and then get sexually seduced by what they believe to be their own grandma? From what I could surmise, perhaps Little Red does know the Wolf isn't her Granny and she only gets under the covers with him to purposely frustrate him sexually in revenge for murdering her granny.

As far as its feminist bent, it's true: She doesn't need to be rescued by any woodsman, but I do believe writer/director Kaplan definitely could have resolved a lot of these inherent problems with translating such an old story into something for modern-thinking audiences. In my opinion, it just doesn't work. Especially toward the end when the fantasy makes it appear as though "she really wanted it" all along. Little Red is a very unsympathetic character, and even Ricci seems at a loss as to how to play her in this pretty but puzzling mess.

Little Red Riding Hood is pretty; I'll give it that. Ricci is nubile, as is Bourtasenkov dancing fluidly to Debussy's "Prelude to The Afternoon of a Fawn" through a heavenly, stylized forest. Cinematographer Scott Ramsey shows admirable command of composition and the effective use of light and shadow.

There are two other Kaplan shorts on this DVD—Little Suck-A-Thumb, and The Frog King—plus his commentary along with folklore scholar Jack Zipes. Little Red Riding Hood is a barely-recommended curio for completists, or maybe card-carrying fans of Ricci, but for everyone else I suggest hitting the books and opting for the much more entertaining Little Red Riding Hood Uncloaked: Sex, Morality, and the Evolution of a Fairy Tale, by Catherine Orenstein.

This first-time-on -DVD collection hits the streets June 16, 2009 from Malaprop Productions.

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