Buried somewhere in the morass between Pixar's perfection, Dreamworks dreariness and Fox's…well, Fox's follies, is Hoodwinked!
. Clever, cloying and just a wee bit overconfident, this independent treasure argues for, not against, the future of the digitally created cartoon. While Disney tries to emulate its pixel partner with half-hearted efforts like Chicken Little
, the outsider arena of animation has been trying to make inroads into the genre for years. Down in Florida, Bruce Barry and his Wacky World Studios have used the computer-based format to re-imagine Bible stories, all within an incredibly inventive insect society. The resulting efforts, found under the Roach Approach
tag, prove that small budget attempts at animation can be just as creative – or more so – than their multi-million dollar equivalent. Now comes Cory and Todd Edwards. Novice filmmakers at best (Cory is a comic and actor, while Todd is a songwriter/musician), this duo (along with co-director Tony Leech) had a desire to emulate the productions of old (especially the resplendent Rankin-Bass oeuvre of '60s and '70s) and together with as much computing power that they could afford, they wanted to forge their own digital domain. They have definitely succeeded with this sunny, surreal take on that red hooded heroine and the whole wolf/granny ordeal.
This is not a big budget production, however. The last minute acquisition by the former Miramax men – Harvey and Bob Weinstein – gave Hoodwinked! an injection of legitimacy that helped it over some incredibly tough technical hurdles. It allowed Leech and the Edwards boys to invest their film with as much personality and style as possible. Instead of homogenizing everything to fit a predetermined marketing ideal, Hoodwinked! rambles on insanely. It tries things other cartoons wouldn't dare, and indulges in inside jokes and references that only the filmmakers could find funny. This means, of course, that the final product will be picked apart by those looking for loopholes in the lunacy. There will be many who mock the less than successful CGI, a sloppy sort of style that renders humans rather bulky and blocky while certain members of the animal side of things (especially Boingo the bunny) come across as completely convincing. Others will look at the script, loaded with tricky, topical humor and some danger-filled action scenes and question the age appropriateness of the content. But perhaps the biggest stumbling block for those who decide to give this indie offering a try is the fact that it's not a recognizable product from one of the big animation machines. It is its own eccentric animal, something we're just not used to in the world of computerized cartooning.
It has to be said that Hoodwinked! looks a little second rate, what with its lack of tactile textures and complex character mapping. A good example of this dearth of detail arrives in two of our main characters – Granny and Kirk the Woodsman. Our lumberjack in training has a moon-shaped face, complete with a bright red beard curling at the end of his chin. Yet during most of the movie, you can't tell if he's sporting facial hair, or just a stain left over from eating too much cherry cobbler. Granny's issues are a little more extreme. Since her character turns out to be an X-Games loving daredevil, we hope to see some sleek, slick action when the old bird hits the ski slopes. But since they were hobbled by bitrate issues, many of the more amazing sequences lack that little extra 'umph' that a company like Pixar or Fox adds to the approach. When we learn that the entire production was premised on the stop-motion animation holiday specials of the past, we become more accepting of the visual's limitations. Still, anyone who enjoys the photorealistic quality of a computer generated cartoon will undeniably find Hoodwinked! to be a disappointment. Oddly enough, the tech specs on display here are really no worse than those of the original Toy Story. In fact, some of the scenes out shine that initial effort from Pixar.
With all that said, there are still dozens of pleasures to be had here. Andy Dick delivers a knockout performance as Boingo the bunny (he was so good in fact, this critic didn't recognize the voice until he saw the comic actor reading lines as part of the making-of material). He gets completely lost in the well-meaning, if megalomaniacal character, and the animation matches his boffo performance note for note. Equally impressive is Xzibit, dropping most of his pimped out persona to deliver a solid spoof as the 'know it all' police officer, Chief Grizzly. Patrick Warburton plays the Wolf as a deadpan derivative of Fletch, even down to the many mindless costume changes, and David Ogden Stiers is sensational as Nicky Flippers, frog PI. Along with the exceptional acting, there is the equally amazing music. Todd Edwards has fashioned some fabulous jangle rock gems here, tunes that will instantly get your toes tapping and your heart pumping. Especially good are Red's "Great Big World" (it sounds like an outtake from a Jane Wiedlin solo album), the crazed horned goat hootenanny "Be Prepared" and the beautiful ballad "Red is Blue" (featuring the voice of none other than Ben Folds). While it's kind of a cliché that all animated movies must have music, Hoodwinked! is the first to make the songs less Broadway and more Brill Building.
Yet it's the crazy characters that will endure, staying with you long after the narrative and underscoring disappear from your mind. Boingo the bunny is so smarmy and self-centered that he comes across as a truly wicked wabbit. Similarly, the hyperactive squirrel sidekick of the Wolf, a chattering little cherry bomb named Twitchy, literally steals every scene he is in. The evil children that join the Woodsmen in his celebration of schnitzel are like the forbidden offspring of a Cabbage Patch/Garbage Pail marriage, and Japeth the Goat has the only interchangeable horns in the entire anthropomorphic world of cartoon characters. His set-piece song in which he shows off his collection of transposable head accessories is fantastic. Indeed, once you get past the problem of the film's look (which actually disappears upon second and THIRD viewings) Hoodwinked! becomes a quasi-classic, a refreshingly irreverent raspberry to all the 'filmmaking by committee' we see in the animated efforts of the bland big wigs. Instead of listening to test scores and focus groups, the creators behind this film have followed their own idiosyncratic ideals. The incredibly entertaining results put to shame the mostly mediocre movies being passed off as fun family fare.
As one of the first DVD offerings from the Weinstein Company, the digital presentation of Hoodwinked! is excellent. The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer (there is also a full screen disc available separately, but why bother) is sensational. The colors are crisp, the details are dense, and the overall production avoids standard image issues – flaring, bleeding, ghosting – to deliver a crystal clear picture.
Perfectly balanced between effects and dialogue, the Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is very well done. It offers up a nice woodland atmosphere during the outdoor sequences and delivers easily discernible dialogue in the interior scenes. The subwoofers do get a workout during the action elements in the film, and the songs sound great in this multi-channel presentation. As with the visual side of the disc, the aural aspect is also top notch.
Though the disc is rather light on overall added content, the bonus features found on Hoodwinked! are still a lot of fun. First up, we have a full length audio commentary with Cory Edwards, Todd Edwards and co-director Tony Leech. Genial, jokey and loaded with behind the scenes insight, the discussion dips and dives between true technical talk (the movie began with a $5000 investment and a couple of computers) and a bevy of insider information (who characters are based on, what it was like working with the actors). We learn about several deleted sequences (almost all missing for budgetary reasons) and how improvising helped build the character arcs. While not nearly as self-congratulatory as they imagine it is, this is still a proud group of men fussing over their amazing animated "child". The results can be a little overbearing, but in a totally good natured manner.
Additional material arrives in the form of some actual deleted footage, though sadly, most of it is nothing more than a few seconds snipped out of the film's songs (there is optional commentary included here as well). Along with a music video for the tune "Critters Have Feelings", and a few trailers, the most excited supplement is a 12 minute featurette on how Hoodwinked! came about, entitled "How to Make an Animated Movie". Here we learn about the total process, from conception to voice casting. The information is presented, Q&A style, via many in the cast and crew. Though it occasionally lapses into EPK territory, it's a nice overview of Hoodwinked!'s many trials and tribulations.
Missing the vaunted DVD Talk Collector's Series scoring by a scant few tech and plot points, Hoodwinked! is still easily rated as Highly Recommended. This is a movie that truly gets better with multiple viewings, each one amplifying the effort and imagination that went into every aspect of the production. So while Dreamworks drags out Shrek for another tale within the ogre/donkey dynamic, and Fox finds more ways to meld art with ennui, and as Disney dreads the day Pixar really picks up its digital ball and goes home for good, there is no need to fret. Battling for recognition along the outskirts of the animation arena are films like Hoodwinked!. Just as with other genres inside the independent movement, the availability of professional quality technology will eventually mean that there will be more examples of this kind of cartooning, and (hopefully) less of the corrosion of conformity derived from animation via audience testing. Frankly, it's better to see something that's problematic if original vs. another example of safe, superficial storytelling. Hoodwinked! has its issues, but it definitely deserves to find its niche among film fans. It is a great deal of fun.
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