Three kids of various heights, in various knit balaclavas, sit on motorbikes.

Film Review: Riddle of Fire

Film Reviews

Riddle of Fire
Director: Weston Razooli

ANAXIA, FullDawa Films
In Theaters: 03.22

Kids movies have been losing their teeth for years, to the point that the weakest outputs can feel like having them pulled. Villains are traded for complex themes, leaving child-friendly danger in the dust. With his film Riddle of Fire, Writer-Director Weston Razooli brings an edge back to children’s fantasy, but an unfocused tone and inconsistent sense of threat-level makes for a middling viewing experience.

Riddle of Fire frames itself as a neo-fairy tale. Three children, Hazel (Charlie Stover, Yellowstone), Alice (Phoebe Ferro, Side Hustle) and Jodie (Skyler Peters), spend their days riding dirt bikes and getting into mischief. When Hazel and Jodie’s mom gets sick, they think it’s the perfect opportunity to play on their newly stolen gaming console. However, she won’t let them game until they get her a blueberry pie to help her feel better. The trio sets off to find the pie, but a series of unfortunate events, fetch quests and kid logic means they’re soon engrossed in a risky conflict at Faery Castle Mountain with the Enchanted Blade gang, a group of poachers led by a witch named Anna-Freya Hollyhock (Lio Tipton, Crazy, Stupid, Love).

Despite the occasional odd line that would be difficult for anyone to deliver, the entire cast does well. Each of the three main child actors has their own strength that works for their character: Ferro’s got the look and presence of a star on the rise, Stover is easily the most skilled with Razooli’s dialogue and Peters, though the youngest, lands the most laughs in the entire movie. From the moment she’s on screen as Anna-Freya, Tipton steals the show from the other adult cast members, showing control of the craft that only Charles Halford  (Outer Banks) as primary antagonist John Redrye comes close to competing with.

Through its 16mm film photography and Celtic fantasy aesthetic, the film turns Park City (here playing the part of Ribbon, Wyoming) into a mystical forest landscape that calls to mind ‘60s and ‘70s fantasy filmmaking with a tinge of Disney live-action (think Pete’s Dragon or Escape to Witch Mountain). The aforementioned 16mm camera contributes to that vibe significantly, as does the patchwork score sourced from over a dozen pre-existing dungeon synth, retro adventure instrumental tracks. However, certain threats and world elements (guns being brandished at the kids, police showing up in the climax) feel too grounded when paired with the overall fantastical atmosphere. Where the dirt bikes are made to feel akin to steeds for our stoic heroes, the use of guns (particularly when paired with Anna-Freya’s magical ability to control others through certain words) weighs the film down in reality a little too much.

Perhaps this wouldn’t be a problem if the children showed any sign of fear when John Redrye flashes his pistol at them. Or, if after making a tense escape, one of the kids expressed how they wished they could just go home. Don’t get me wrong—I love the trio’s rambunctious tenacity and Wes Anderson-esque deadpan cusses as much as the next audience member, but they don’t feel like they’re allowed to react like real kids. Outside of a brief celebratory moment at the start, they never laugh together and they never feel scared or sad. A tear being shed by one of the kids would have gone a long way toward connecting with the audience.

This isn’t the only place in which Riddle of Fire feels unbalanced. John Redrye is a perfect children’s villain; intense, memorable (a good cowboy hat will do that for you) and flappable. He’s a loose canon with a lit fuse, and I was 100% on board until they jumped the gun too soon—he went from “Where are your parents, you rascal?” to “I’m going to kill you” in the matter of one scene. Anna-Freya faces a different problem altogether, as her loose and little magic fails to manifest meaningfully when everything it achieves could have easily happened in a world without magic.

I really don’t mean to sound too negative. For the first hour I was really enjoying myself, even if Razooli’s shot-reverse shot approach to every conversation did get a little tiresome. No, it’s in the third act that the narrative really falls apart, moving from a tense, folksy showdown at Faery Castle Mountain to a wildly miscalculated nightclub sequence, resulting in a finale as drawn out as it is baffling. The film’s charming vibe is muddied by a tonally confused ending, and ultimately feels like it has overstayed its welcome.

Riddle of Fire is an unbalanced but valiant effort to revive both the fantasy and children’s adventure genres. With so many charming kid performances, good vibes and slices of blueberry pie to go around, it’s disappointing that the undercooked ending leaves such a bittersweet taste in the mouth. –Max Bennion

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