Adventure Movies

Wilderness-Set Debut Feels Like Child’s Play

March 25, 20245 Mins Read

A trio of kids on dirt bikes stir up a low-stakes adventure in this amusing homage to vintage live-action Disney adventure movies, minus the parent-approved moral lesson.

Long before she was a movie star, a teenage Nicole Kidman appeared in the early-’80s action comedy “BMX Bandits,” a rowdy Australian kidpic full of bicycle stunts and Scooby-Doo crime-stopping shenanigans. It’s too early to say whether any of the adorable young leads in “Riddle of Fire” will go on to have successful acting careers. Still, it’s amusing to think that two decades into the 21st century, writer-director Weston Razooli has taken inspiration from such questionable classics, along with vintage live-action Disney fare — like “Escape from Witch Mountain” and the Herbie movies, which the studio sold in puffy white VHS cases — for his own retro-spirited debut.

Spun from equal parts imagination and nostalgia, “Riddle of Fire” comes as close as any film since “Spy Kids” or “Kisses” to mirroring the kind of cinematic adventures we made in our heads as kids (if you’re reading this and don’t know Lance Daly’s now-15-year-old Irish charmer, seek it out). Razooli remembers how it feels to blaze down dirt paths or traipse off into the woods in search of adventure, spying on suspicious-looking strangers and embellishing whatever it looked like those grown-ups were doing into nefarious schemes — plots which only “meddling kids” felt equipped to solve.

Reverse-engineered from such memories and shot on 16mm Kodak film — with radioactive-yellow wildflowers and foliage so green you may reach for your allergy medication — the project makes up in personality what it lacks in budget. “Riddle of Fire” opens with an invitation from a young faery named Petal Hollyhock (Lorelei Olivia Mote), who sits by a stream and spouts some Dungeons & Dragons-sounding gibberish while flute music plays on the soundtrack. “We’ll have ourselves an outin’,” the girl suggests, whisking audiences to Ribbon, Wyoming (actually Utah), where the widescreen sight of a reddish A-frame cabin surrounded by forest suggests a folksy American fairytale.

Straight out of the gate, three dirt-bike-riding kids in hand-knitted ski masks break into a warehouse and steal a coveted video game console, but their mother (Danielle Hoetmer), laid up in bed for the duration of the movie, refuses to unlock the television set unless they spend some quality time outdoors. Back in the ’80s, that was a familiar refrain, especially among adults wary of the effect that electronic devices could have on developing young minds. These days, neighbors have been known to report parents whose children go unsupervised in their own front yards for any length of time. God forbid they should witness what mischief this trio has in store (no worse than “The Goonies” or “The New Adventures of Pippi Longstocking,” mind you).

Mom asks her sons Hazel (Charlie Stover) and Jodie (Skyler Peters), along with tomboy friend Alice (Phoebe Ferro), to fetch her a blueberry pie from the bakery in town — a simple request which the youngsters choose to interpret like an epic quest. Discovering the bakery to be out of stock, they resolve to bake the pie themselves, which they can’t do without one key ingredient: a speckled egg. Alas, they reach the grocery store a moment too late, just in time to see a burly cowboy named John Redrye (Charles Halford) take the last dozen. When asking nicely doesn’t work, they resolve to follow this “woodsy bastard” home and steal an egg from him there.

None of this would seem sufficient to hold an adult viewer’s attention for long, and yet, the whole enterprise feels so much like play — not just for the characters, but for audiences too — that we roll along with each new development. When the kids hide under blankets in the back of John’s tricked out pickup truck, effectively hitching a ride to a camp out with a coven 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 mischievous daughter of head witch Anna-Freya Hollyhock (Lio Tipton).

It’s around this time that the kids discover the adults’ true agenda 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 hold their own. Still, two hours is far too long for such a lark. Instead of wrapping up poignantly, à la “Florida Project,” this riddle ultimately unravels. Their search for the speckled egg probably should have ended around sundown, allowing some greater point to reveal itself. Apart from Tipton and Halford, the acting feels fairly amateurish throughout, with the sort of stilted line readings easily forgiven from child actors or John Waters extras (in a cute touch, Jodie’s endearingly unintelligible dialogue is accompanied by subtitles). It should all bring back fond memories for those who grew up with access to the great outdoors, or for their big-city counterparts raised in front of a VCR.

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