There’s nothing quite like a throwback film – whether it’s driven by nostalgia or executed as a creative exercise, it’s fun to see how creatives handle the material.
Weston Razooli’s Riddle of Fire has all of the hallmarks of a classic ’80s children adventure film, mixed with the quaintness of a British fairytale. This is evident from the film’s opening scene, which features ethereal folk music, heavily stylized cursive font, and fairytale language: “Are ye a knight or are ye a squire? Can ye solve the Riddle of Fire?”
Like the best examples from the ’80s, however, there’s a persistent undercurrent of peril as the child characters are repeatedly put in danger with antagonists who won’t hesitate to harm or even murder them. In short: think Goonies meets Adventures in Babysitting with a touch of The Princess Bride‘s aesthetic.
One of the great aspects of the film is its playfulness. Take, for example, the silly – and yes, child-like – inciting incident. In the waning days of summer vacation before they’re shipped off to camp, pre-teen brothers Hazel (Charlie Stover) and Jodie (Skyler Peters), plus their more mature friend Alice (Phoebe Ferro), steal an Angel gaming system from the nearby Oromo factory. In order to play, however, they need the TV password, and Hazel and Jodie’s sick mother Julie A’Dale (Danielle Hoetmer) demands payment in the form of a blueberry pie. Alas when they can’t secure one from the bakery, the quest for the ingredients to bake their own pie sends the trio on myriad adventures that occupy the rest of the day and into the night.
There’s an otherworldly aspect to the world building of Riddle of Fire. There’s contemporary technology (cell phones are mentioned), but the small town where the action takes place – Ribbon, Wyoming – almost feels removed from reality. This is accentuated by the dreamy 16mm cinematography provided by director of photography Jake L Mitchell, as well as the film’s Western aesthetic, including the costuming and the wood cottage hideout of the film’s villains, the Enchanted Blade Gang.
The kids intersect with this group of criminals after they run afoul of the Band’s begrudging cook, John Redrye (Charles Halford), when they butt heads at the supermarket over the last package of speckled eggs. When Redrye takes off with the kids’ lone outstanding ingredient, a mythic quest is initiated that will find the action move from the grocery store to the Gang’s cottage and into the mountains where the group’s leader, Anna-Freya (Lio Tipton), plans to kill a mythical elk prince.
Along the way they befriend Petal (Lorelei Mote), the nymph-like daughter of Anna-Freya. In keeping with the film’s tendency to veer into fairytale, both mother and child have the ability to speak a secret language that they use to make the Gang’s disciples, including Anna-Freya’s brother Marty Hollyhock (Razooli) and sisters Suds (Rachel Browne) and Kels (Andrea Browne), perform their bidding.
Petal is a precocious tyke who fits in perfectly with the trio – she’s headstrong, stubborn and unfailingly willing to dive headfirst into danger. And while the film’s nearly two hour runtime can feel meandering and drawn-out, particularly in the last act, the adventures of the fearless foursome and their ability to get out of scrapes is often quite fun and endearing.
This is a testament to the child actors, who are on screen for most of the film. Despite the film taking place all in one day, thereby reducing the opportunity for significant character arcs, Stover, Peters and Ferro all do great work to create distinct, memorable characters. They’re also instrumental in balancing the children’s adventure elements with the film’s more adult themes.
Jodie is a stand-out: the youngest member of the group is sage beyond his years, but his accent/childish voice means that the character is always subtitled (that’s no shade on Peters – it’s part of the joke). Meanwhile the burgeoning pre-teen romance between Hazel and Alice ensures plenty of fiery disagreements and explosive reactions, all of which contributes to the drama as complications snowballs over the course of a traditional “one long day” narrative.
As in any fairytale, the danger is counterbalanced with moments of whimsy and fantasy, including a children’s dance performance that is admirably awkward. This is, for the most part, still very fun, although by the time the action shifts from the mountain back to town, both characters and the audience are apt to feel more than a little worn out.
Overall Riddle of Fire is a nostalgic throwback to children’s adventure films of the past with a contemporary sensibility. Featuring strong child performances and a surprisingly complementary Western meets fairytale aesthetic, this quest film is a low-key charmer, even if it does overstay its welcome by about 10-15 minutes.
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