‘Riddle of Fire’ review: Weston Razooli’s Wilderness Set debut feels like child’s play, in a good way

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Long before she became a movie star, teenage Nicole Kidman appeared in the early 1980s action comedy “BMX Bandits,” a raucous Australian film filled with bike stunts and Scooby-Doo crime-stopping shenanigans. It’s too early to say whether any of the wonderful young heroes in “Riddle of Fire” will go on to have a successful acting career. Still, it’s amusing to think that two decades into the 2000s, writer-director Weston Razzoli is drawing inspiration from such questionable classics, along with old Disney live-action films — like “Escape from Witch Mountain” and the Herbie films, which the studio sold in cans Puffy White VHS – his old soul debut.

Weaving equal parts fantasy and nostalgia, “Riddle of Fire” comes as close as any film since “Spy Kids” or “Kisses” has come to reflecting the kind of cinematic adventures we created in our heads as kids (if you’re reading this and don’t know the wizard Irishman Lance Daly is now 15, so look him up). Razzoli remembers what it was like to hit the dirt trails or wander the woods in search of adventure, spying on suspicious-looking strangers, embellishing everything those grown-ups were doing into nefarious schemes—plots that “only prey on kids.” She felt equipped to solve it.

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Constructed backwards from such memories and shot on 16mm Kodak film—with radiant yellow wildflowers and foliage so green you could reach for your allergy medicine—the project makes up in character what it lacks in budget. “Riddle of Fire” begins with the invitation of a young fairy named Petal Hollyhock (Lorelei Olivia Mote), who sits by a stream and spouts some Dungeons & Dragons-sounding nonsense while flute music plays on the soundtrack. “We’ll take ourselves out for a walk,” the girl suggests, transporting the audience to Ripon, Wyoming (actually Utah), where the sweeping vista of a reddish A-frame cabin surrounded by woods suggests an American folk fairy tale.

Right out of the gate, three kids riding dirt bikes and wearing hand-knit ski masks break into a warehouse and steal a coveted video game console, but their mother (Danielle Hotmyer), lying in bed for the duration of the film, refuses to turn on the TV unless they’re spending some quality air time. The divorce. In the 1980s, this phrase was familiar, especially among adults who were concerned about the impact that electronic devices could have on developing young minds. These days, neighbors have been known to report parents whose children remain unattended in their front yards for any length of time. God forbid they witness what mischief this trio has in store (no worse than “The Goonies” or “The New Adventures of Pippi Longstocking,” mind you).

The mother asks her sons Hazel (Charlie Stover) and Judy (Skyler Peters), along with her tomboy friend Alice (Phoebe Ferro), to bring her blueberry pie from the town bakery — a simple request that the youngsters choose to interpret as an epic. research. After discovering the bakery was out of stock, they decided to bake the pie themselves, something they couldn’t do without one key ingredient: a speckled egg. Unfortunately, they arrive at the grocery store too late, just in time to see a burly cowboy named John Redray (Charles Halford) take the last dozen. When asking nicely doesn’t work, they decide to follow the “wooden scoundrel” home and steal an egg from him there.

None of this seems enough to hold an adult viewer’s attention for long, and yet, the whole enterprise feels so much like a play — not just for the characters, but also for the audience — that we keep up with every new development. When the kids hide under blankets in the back of John’s trick-or-treat pickup truck, effectively arriving at a camp outside with a group of witches, we’re less concerned for their safety than curious to see where the story will go next. There in the back of the truck, the trio discover Petal, the narrator and evil daughter of head witch Anna Freya Hollyhook (Leo Tipton).

Around this time, the children discover the true agenda of the adults out there in the woods, and the relatively innocent antics take a more sinister turn. Armed with shiny chrome paintball guns and iPhones that double as high-tech binoculars, these resourceful kids own their own property. However, two hours is too long for such a lark. Instead of concluding poignantly, à la The Florida Project, this mystery unravels at the end. Perhaps their search for the spotted egg was supposed to end at sunset, allowing a larger speck to reveal itself. Aside from Tipton and Halford, the acting feels somewhat amateurish throughout, with the kind of stilted line readings that could easily be forgiven by child actors or John Waters’ extras (in a nice touch, Judy’s endearingly incomprehensible dialogue is accompanied by subtitles). All of this should bring back fond memories for those who grew up with access to the great outdoors, or for their big-city counterparts who grew up in front of VCRs.

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