Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale owes to its title the oft-featured exhibit at New York’s Museum of Natural History depicting the two sea creatures in the midst of battle. There in a suspended, jarringly life-size diorama, clasped to the ridge of a sperm whale’s mouth, a giant squid protrudes like a bulbous tumor.
Like everything else in the dysfunctional family at the center of the movie, in Baumbach’s film, it’s cancerous.
Set in Park Slope, Brooklyn in the 1980s The Squid and the Whale opens on a tennis court. “Me and dad against you and mom,” the elder son Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) elects, setting the stage for what becomes a too-earnest battle.
A few groundstrokes and a forehand slam to the wife’s chest later, Bernard (Jeff Daniels) has won the match and alienated his family. His wife Joan (Laura Linney) drops her racquet in disgust as Bernard stands motionless, half-exulted, half-guilty. Back at home in their elegant brownstone, the Berkmans talk over dinner.
Walt, a sixteen-year-old with literary pretensions, tells his parents about what he’s reading in English class. Bernard bristles at the suggestion of A Tale of Two Cities and regards his son dismissively. “Minor Dickens,” he exclaims.
There are two possible explanations for the bizarre, messy clash of the child’s cotton-candy, frivolous and hyperactive world of blocks and the adult’s sinister, black-humored and hyperactive world of curves embodied in Hoodwinked: (1) the directors thought they could appeal to both by creating a kid-friendly, but smart film, or (2) it’s the product of a drug-induced whim by a crazy person wanting to pull a big joke on kids and throw a pie in the face of the adults. I think the directors tried for #1, but ended up with #2.
Hoodwinked is the retelling of the classic Little Red Riding Hood fairy tale that we all knew and loved as kids (or did we?). Or, that’s the premise; in actuality, the Little Red Riding Hood story is just the basis for an action movie set in Cartoon World. Regardless, the movie begins with Little Red Riding Hood, or “Red” as she’s called (appealing to adults here!), voiced by Anne Hathaway, on her way to Granny’s (Glenn Close) house. When she gets there she encounters the big bad Wolf (Puddy from Seinfeld – er, Patrick Warburton) dressed as Granny.
My, what big ears and eyes he has! What big hands he has! “What bad breath you have,” notes Red. And as soon The Wolf realizes that he is not fooling her, he jumps out of bed, growls in her face, and … The two begin a karate fight, only to be interrupted by a Paul Bunyan-like character, The Woodsman, crashing through the wall and brandishing an ax. This is not your mother’s fairy tale.
Before things can get bloody and really start appealing to adults, the police break in and take them all into custody. There’s a Goody Bandit out on the loose, so naturally they want to interview a confection-courier, a ravenous wolf and a big fat man. Each, in turn, launches into his or her account of what really happened at Granny’s house, Rashomon style.
Red was just visiting her Granny and bringing her sweets. The Wolf is actually an investigative journalist who thought he could get the scoop by talking to Granny and Red, who come from a long line of famous bakers. The Woodsman is a failed actor who harbors dreams of being a famous yodeler and … eventually comes crashing through Granny’s house after being thrown from a rolling tree which he cut down. (Too far of a connection to relate the whole story.) And Granny – well, let’s just say that Granny may not be your standard, smelly old prune.
So does a movie like this appeal to kids? There were only a few in the audience, and they didn’t seem to laugh much until a hyper, rapid-fire talking squirrel entered the picture, who merely provides cheap laughs. But can they relate to the rest of the film? The weird rock and techno music scattered throughout? The references to James Bond, Star Wars and Kill Bill? The can of mace sprayed in a character’s face and the policemen replete with Tasers and nightsticks?
Kids’ movies like this one should appeal to adults, but, a few amusing parts notwithstanding, I don’t think it does. It is a quasi-musical, which surprised me, because I thought that cartoon musicals were dead. Movies like this show us why they are. The animation is sub-par and the cast providing the voices, with the exception of Close, is full of B-movie actors. The characters are flat, uninteresting and, in the case of the bad guy’s henchmen who look like SNL Sprocket dancers, sometimes odd. Hoodwinked doesn’t really deserve the title “film,” because it doesn’t have much of a brain or a heart. Rather, it is simply another kids’ cartoon.
Archived article by Terry Fedigan Sun Staff Writer