There's no question that there's something whacked-out creepy about the computer-generated animation that drives Hoodwinked, the new hey-we're-totally-not-Shrek-but-man-that-was-a-cool-flick-eh? feature-length cartoon. There's a plastic sheen to the skin of the human characters and an almost obscene bulging to their enormous eyes that is, I imagine, exactly like what Precious Moments figurines would look like if some evil sorcerer breathed unholy undead life into them and set them loose on a brain-eating rampage.
Hoodwinked is from a new animation studio, Kanbar, and if they were going out of their way to not look like they were aping Pixar, well, they certainly succeeded.
The nonhuman characters don't have the same night-terrors-inducing quality — and there's a lot of them on display here, because this is the latest in a long line of too-hip-for-Grimm fairy tales in which animals behave like humans, which is allegedly funny in and of itself for some reason. So there's a grizzly bear police chief and a stork cop, and they do stereotypical cop stuff like eat donuts — har, har — and a gang of beavers got up as the Village People, just because, I guess. It's sorta sad, like a capuchin monkey dressed up in little tiny people clothes and a hat and made to dance, but at least they don't actually make your skin crawl.
And for a while, that's all Hoodwinked is: a pointless parody of human behavior as performed by animals, as the woodland creature cops come to Granny's house to investigate a "domestic disturbance." Red (voiced by Anne Hathaway) has arrived at the home of her grandmother (Glenn Close) only to find a big bad Wolf (Patrick Warburton) lying in wait. Things go bad, the cops are called, and here's Red telling her side of things to the authorities. Her tale is rather banal, and at times even random and nonsensical — she has to ask for directions to Granny's house? Hasn't she been there a million times before? — and Hoodwinked is just a pop-culture jumble, fumbling around in Shrek land, exuding exactly the opposite kind of charm of last year's Chicken Little.
But then something almost miraculous happens. Red steps aside, and the Wolf starts relating his story, and suddenly everything snaps into sharp focus: the satire gets genuinely satirical, the humor actually gets funny, and surprises galore start rolling out at us. This really isn't a Grimm fairy tale, and it really isn't Shrek warmed over. Hoodwinked suddenly becomes its own unique monster, smart and witty and original, with points to make about the prejudices forced upon us by our limited perspectives and the benefits of just slowing down in the heat of the moment and taking the time to hear the other guy's point of view.
And the flick gets sweetly goofy, too, so much so that you start to be able to overlook the scary CGI. This is partly due to Patrick Warburton, who simply can't help but be funny merely by showing up, can't help but be funny in his pauses. And then there's his sidekick, a hyperactive squirrel called Twitchy (who doesn't actually speak but whose nervous jitterings are voiced by one of the writer/directors, Cory Edwards) — sure, Twitchy is basically Scrat from Ice Age, but at least they stole the one really funny thing from that movie.
But mostly it's due to the cleverness of Edwards and his fellow filmmakers — his brother, Todd Edwards, and Tony Leech, all of whom are making their major feature debuts here (the Edwardses made a small indie previously). From their brilliant creation Nicky Flippers (the voice of David Ogden Stiers), a frog detective who's like something out of Agatha Christie, to the wonderfully inventive G-rated swear words ("Schnitzel!" "Hoover Dam!"), they've come seemingly out of nowhere to blaze a new trail for feature animation, one that's sufficiently like what we've seen recently to not scare anyone off and also sufficiently new to feel fresh.
There's a sequel in the pipeline, of course. Curiously, the prospect doesn't fill me with the kind of dread such things usually do.