Director: Weston Razooli
Screenplay: Weston Razooli
Producers: David Atrakchi, Sohrab Mirmont, Weston Razooli, Lio Tipton
Starring: Lio Tipton, Charles Halford, Lorelei Olivia Mote
Year: 2023
Country: USA
BBFC Certification: 12
Duration: 113 mins

I was in two minds when the opportunity to review Weston Razooli’s debut feature Riddle of Fire came up. On the one hand, I was attracted to its debt to the kids-on-bikes Fantasy and Adventure movies with which I had grown up. On the other hand, that exact issue was the same thing that put me off a little. In a nostalgia-flooded era where reheating familiarity often seems to be the favoured approach, I wasn’t sure I could take another floppy memory from the microwave. Nevertheless, I was tempted by the proclaimed influence of 70s live-action Disney films, a sometimes terrible but often fascinatingly weird reference point. As it turned out, Riddle of Fire retained elements of the terrible, the weird and the fascinating but it just didn’t quite pull it all together into something truly winning.

One thing I was relieved to see was that Riddle of Fire is set in modern times. I don’t need to see Rubik’s cubes, Michael Jackson posters and Magnum P.I. on every TV screen in order to get a sense of youthful energy. The excellent opening scenes of the film demonstrate how there’s enough crossover in the experience of being a child to reach across generations. The protagonists’ celebration of having successfully stolen a new games console from a warehouse and their preparations to enjoy it (mostly consisting of preparing a ton of junk food) is instantly evocative of childhood excitement in a way that most of us can understand. The same is true of the crushing disappointment they feel when they realise the TV has been password locked. To obtain the password, they are tasked with buying a blueberry pie from the local bakery for their mother who is sick in bed. This kicks off a complex quest that sends them from place to place as they attempt to acquire ingredients to make the pie themselves. So far, so fun. The problem with Riddle of Fire is when it reaches beyond its simple premise to try and become something more. At this point the children stumble into real danger as their quest puts them in the crosshairs of the Enchanted Blade Gang. Comedy crooks were a staple of live action Disney but the Enchanted Blade Gang are no dunderheaded rogues. They are a genuine threat and there’s an unfortunate brutality to their encounters which sours the film a little.

The problem at this stage is that Riddle of Fire loses sight of what it wants to be. Throwback films of this kind often fall victim to the director’s own childlike enthusiasm for everything with which they grew up. So Riddle of Fire, having already set itself the difficult task of juggling a straightforward kid’s Adventure and a strange Fantasy element, barrels ahead with the tedious Action tropes we’ve seen repurposed a million times before. Suddenly we’re in the woods, stalking and shooting paintball guns as the film veers into Rambo country. At this point, in fact, Riddle of Fire starts to feel like the film the young protagonists were trying to make in the infinitely more charming Son of Rambow. There’s also an unnecessary romantic element introduced between two of the kids which, while thankfully kept innocent, doesn’t add anything to the story. And, of course, there’s a pointless dance-off thrown in on a very flimsy pretext. I’m not sure at exactly what point audiences started being served dancing scenes ad nauseam (I usually blame Shrek, although I blame everything on Shrek!) but they tend to annoy me more than anything else. There’s a joy to watching people dance but it only works if you get there organically, which so few films seem to do anymore. When the kids here were pushed into performing a dance by a shady guy who just felt like messing with them, I genuinely put my head in my hands.

I liked the look of Riddle of Fire, it’s simplicity and rough edges reminding me as much of the Children’s Film Foundation’s 70s output as it did of Disney, but its charm only lasted as long as its focus. The problem seems to be that the directors of these films eventually start indulging their own genre-nerd fantasies rather than keeping their eye on the ball to create something consistent and satisfying. The same was true of Turbo Kid’s incongruous mix of children’s Adventure and super-gory Horror. Making these old fashioned kids’ films for a modern audience isn’t a bad idea. I just wish more people had the guts and self-restraint to actually make them for kids.

Icon Film Distribution presents Riddle of Fire on Blu-ray and Digital 8th July

Where to watch Riddle of Fire
Riddle of Fire
2.5Overall Score
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