The comparisons to "Shrek" are inevitable, since "Hoodwinked" also has some animated fun with fairy tales. But the Cory Edwards film doesn't quite have the wit or bite that "Shrek" took out of the genre. Both films are rated PG, but it seems as if the "Shrek" folks pushed that rating to the limit, because "Hoodwinked" feels tamer by comparison. Not that flatulence is funny and squeaky clean is dull, but any act of self-censorship is also an act of self-consciousness, and that would certainly work against spontaneity and irreverence—two of the adjectives I'd use to describe "Shrek." Then too, there's the MW-factor. With no Eddie Murphy or Robin Williams to help drive the engine, there's more of a chug-along feel to it all . . . except when someone flips the knob and turns on the music.
Original songs from Edwards' brother, Todd, are what energize this take-off of the Red Riding Hood fairy tale. They're a wonderful combination of singable songs, toe-tapping tunes, and narrative celebration, with the best of the bunch a memorable parody of Bavaria and the Good Humor man. The Schnitzel Man drives his truck over hill and dale while happy and pudgy little German children in leiderhosen hop along behind him and a song-about schnitzel plays from the vehicle. The other energy comes, surprisingly, from Glenn Close—though if you hadn't told me that Close was the voice of the spitfire Granny Puckett, who has a secret life as Extreme Sports combatant "Triple G," I never would have known it.
At the advice of Disney's Don Hahn, we learn in the commentary, Edwards moved the story we all know to the front of the film, and that's how it opens—with Red (Anne Hathaway) pedaling along on her bicycle singing, en route, with picnic basket, to Granny's house. In "Hoodwinked," she's actually working for her Granny, who happens to be a famous cookie maker. Red does deliveries, only when she arrives this time, Granny isn't looking like herself. She's in bed, and we get the whole "how big" and "better to" routine, with one big twist: Granny isn't dead, she's tied up in the closet and comes hopping out just as the Wolf (Patrick Warburton, aka "Kronk") grabs a fireplace poker and threatens Red. But then, into the window crashes a big woodsman with an axe (Jim Belushi), and ALL of them scream. The action freezes and we launch into the title sequence. From that point, Granny's cottage is roped off with police tape and the entire film is in the hands of dapper frog detective Nicky Flippers (David Ogden Stiers). Like the Thin Man, Flippers walks in with his little dog on leash and conducts the investigation and interrogations while the uniformed cops (a bear, a stork, and three little pigs) keep the suspects in line. Though it's treated like a murder mystery, there's been no murder—only a "domestic disturbance."
Small kids might not get that "Hoodwinked" is really four versions of the same story, with Red, the Wolf, Granny, and the Woodsman telling their side of it to Flippers so that we get four flashbacks before Flippers, like all great detectives, announces who really did it. Did what, you might ask? Well, in the absence of a murder, the crime is one that's unrelated to the disturbance. A Goody Bandit has been stealing goodies and recipes, and Nicky Flippers and the cops have been conducting a parallel investigation, and by the end of the film we learn who the Goody Bandit is.
The animation itself is unique. Red's head, for example, has a porcelain doll quality to it, and she and the other 3-D characters look halfway between the claymation animation of Wallace & Gromit and the CGI animated characters in "Ice Age." It's an odd style, but one that actually befits a children's pop-up book—and that's how we're introduced to the story. The Red Riding Hood book opens up, a forest pops up, and we zoom into the forest the way we zoomed into Paris in "Moulin Rouge." In the commentary, Edwards says that people keep telling him the animation isn't as good as "Polar Express." "We know that," he says, indicating that it was deliberate. They were focusing on story, and treating animation the same way as any other filmmaker would treat live action, rather than trying to dazzle the audience with the CGI. But listen longer on the commentary and you'll hear how this film wasn't made in a studio or even an office. It was made, for the most part, in Edwards' apartment, while brother Todd worked on the music in the other room. And it was their first animated effort. I find that absolutely amazing, because it's a wonderful debut. "Hoodwinked" may not have the energy and irreverence of "Shrek," but it's still an engaging film that's poised halfway between Disney and Warner Brothers sensibilities. There's practically no violence, and the most off-color it gets is when the Woodsman says "What the schnitzel" or Granny says "Bull schizzle."
"Hoodwinked" may seem slight the first time around, but it bears rewatching. I enjoyed it the second time more than I did the first, simply because I caught more things. Grab a pencil and notebook and go on a pop culture hunt. In this fairytale forest, they pop up like the trees do as the book opens up. Instead of Mountain Dew there's Forest Dew, and "Triple G" does those kind of stunts we've seen in the "Dew It" commercials. But there are also allusions to "Elf," James Bond, Ahhhnold Schwarzenegger, "Sleeping Beauty," Bugs Bunny and "Looney Tunes" cartoons, "Beverly Hills Cop," "Fletch" (the wolf is patterned after the Chevy Chase character, with a touch of Bill Murray thrown in for good measure), "The Wizard of Oz," Ken Burns documentaries, "A Christmas Story," and Riccola throat drops commercials. And who knows how many more I'll see the third time around.
The filmmakers used a focus group of neighborhood kids to test the appeal of the film, and it certainly seems to be a hit with kids. Parents know what repeat plays mean, and my two have requested that I put on "Hoodwinked" at least twice a day since they first saw it. And they asked their mom if she could make schnitzel. That's one heck of an endorsement.
Video: The video quality is excellent, with hardly any grain and a sharpness and vividness to the colors that brings this fairytale world to life. Be careful when you pick up the package. There are both widescreen and full screen editions, with the widescreen a 16x9 aspect ratio "enhanced" for widescreen televisions. I reviewed the widescreen version, and have absolutely no complaints.
Audio: Same with the audio, which is a robust and booming English/French Dolby Digital 5.1, with subtitles in English and Spanish. The songs really pop off the speakers the way the images pop up on the screen. Excellent balance of bass and treble, and excellent timbre.
Extras: There are five deleted/extended scenes, which include some of the songs done differently, along with a making-of short feature titled "How to Make an Animated Film," a "Critters Have Feelings" music video, the theatrical trailer, and a commentary with the Edwards brothers and co-conspirator Tony Leech. The commentary is quite good—a combination of entertainment and information that makes you want to watch the film all over again, without the commentary. Cory Edwards calls it "the Napoleon Dynamite of Animated Films," and that's not a bad comparison. They're low-keying it in a big way.
The deleted/extended scenes includes one B&W storyboard that's "illuminated" the way the end-credits are—with flashlight. One of the songs—Red's opening number—features a bunch of beavers that are dressed like the Village People, while another version of the Schnitzel Song offers more things for the astute-of-eye to catch. The making-of feature is pretty informative, but the gem is still the full-length commentary. It's a pleasure to listen to, and maybe that's because these guys haven't cranked out so many films that doing another commentary feels like a chore.
Bottom Line: If you watch "Hoodwinked" expecting "Shrek 3," you're going to be disappointed. It's an entirely different fairytale critter with a different structure and a different target of humor. All fairytales aren't the object of satire, as in "Shrek." "Hoodwinked" parodies the cop dramas and Red Riding Hood fairy tale, with humor pop culture references that are less in-your-face. A better comparison might be "Snow White and the Seven Dwarves," Disney's first full-length animated feature. For a first animated effort, "Hoodwinked" certainly entertains, while showing the future promise of its creators.