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‘Riddle of Fire’ Review: A Fitfully Amusing Fairy Tale About Kids on Tolkien-Like Quest to Unlock Parental Control Passwords

A beguiling “neo-fairy tale” that effectively splits the difference between the high fantasy of “Legend” and the lo-fi drift of “L for Leisure,Weston Razooli’s “Riddle of Fire” tries to capture the magic inherent to even modern childhood by stretching a simple fetch quest into an epic adventure. Perhaps a little too epic, it turns out.

Despite kicking off with a heist sequence that crystallizes the miscreant fun of a late summer afternoon and tees up a Tolkien-worthy plot in the clearest possible terms, Razooli’s increasingly languorous debut soon proves to be easier to appreciate than it is to enjoy. It’s a light and singular concoction of sick-ass vibes in dire need of something — anything — to weigh them down. I couldn’t wait for it to end, but that’s partially because I’m already so impatient to see what Razooli does next.

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Set in rural Wyoming despite being shot in the filmmaker’s home state of Utah, “Riddle of Fire” is so eager to exploit the discontinuities between its elegant mish-mash of clashing tones, temporalities, and tree-lined locations that it adds a few extra ones nobody would ever notice on top of the many different ones that everybody will. The story begins with three unsupervised kids — adorable little goblins all — racing their dirt bikes through the woods as Arthurian flute music flutters over the soundtrack that it shares with a mix of licensed Dungeon Synth. When Hazel (Charlie Stover) whips out his iPhone to scope out a warehouse, the shock of the modern is further amplified by the Zonai-futuristic surveillance software he uses to locate the package our precocious heroes are about to steal: A new video game console called the Otomo Angel.

There’s only one problem: When Hazel and his gang return to their hideout with the treasure, they find that his mom has put a new password on the family TV (the code appears to be in some kind of elvish, which doesn’t seem at all out of place in the living room of a woodland A-frame house that looks like it was co-designed by Ari Aster and the Brothers Grimm). So Hazel, his adorably impish little brother Jodie (Skyler Peters, whose dialogue is subtitled for clarity and comedic effect), and the no-nonsense Alice (Phoebe Ferro, always keeping the boys in check) try to bribe Hazel’s mom for the code.

A single parent who’s sick in bed and determined for these kids to spend the last weekend of summer playing outside while they still can, Hazel’s mom agrees to reveal the password if the scoundrels fetch her a blueberry pie from the local bakery. That sounds easy enough, but the woman who makes the pies is sick as well. She eventually grants them the recipe, only for Hazel and his friends to discover that they’re missing a key ingredient: An egg. And not just any egg, but a speckled egg.

So they race to the local Albertsons or whatever, where a leathery stranger named John Redrye — played by Charles Halford, whose performance suggests Rick Dalton auditioning to be a Nazgûl — nabs the last one. Paintball guns locked and loaded, the kids follow John back to his house, which turns out to be the headquarters for the Enchanted Blade Gang. Hazel and his pals are too focused on their video game to care about the mind-controlling witch who runs the gang, but when Anna-Freya Hollyhock (Lio Tipton) orders her underlings to pack the groceries into their truck for a poaching expedition (their target: a magical stag who lives on Faery Castle Mountain), our young heroes slip into the cargo bed and go along for the ride.

Video games are great, but there’s nothing like a real adventure with your best friends on the last Friday of August.

Then again, “Riddle of Fire” is only so endearing — and not annoying — because, for all of its abundant cheekiness, Razooli’s 16mm pastiche takes the seriousness of its quest to heart. Obviously the real treasure is the reckless and carefree time that Hazel, Alice, and Jodie get to spend together, and the familial bond that it allows these semi-feral children to forge in the absence of their fathers, but Razooli has zero interest in easy sentiment, and the most realistic thing about his young characters is that nothing ever becomes more important or meaningful to them than playing that damn video game.

The kids are heightened in a variety of different ways that help maintain this movie’s distance from reality (the puckish Jodie talks like a one-toothed bit player in a John Ford Western, his brain a peculiar mush of things he must’ve overheard from grown-ups on TV), but there’s something unfailingly honest to how these characters always think like children, even if the dry humor of their dialogue feels targeted at adults. Alone and together, Hazel and his gang are learning how to live in a world where they’ll have to rely on their own wits to survive, and whatever the failings of Razooli’s narrative, he does a fine job of scaling up the danger so that the kids feel out of their depths without ever being at risk of death.

But, as any parent of young ruffians will tell you, listening to a kid tell a long and rambling story is only fun until it’s not, and the most childlike thing about “Riddle of Fire” is that Razooli can’t — or deliberately refuses to — distinguish between the details that matter and the ones that don’t. Things begin to fall apart in a hurry once the action reaches Faery Castle Mountain, as the film’s “Hobbit”-like sweep and precocious sense of fun become bogged down by some terminally self-amused bits of business.

Anna-Freya’s resolutely upbeat daughter Petal (Lorelei Olivia Mote) wends her way towards the heart of this story by the end, but Razooli struggles to finesse her into Hazel’s friend group, and watching Anna-Freya’s minions trip over their own toes again and again proves so tedious that not even Tipton’s compellingly exhausted performance as a weary millennial witch can do much to save it. Bilbo was always on the move, but “Riddle of Fire” is all too happy to wander around in circles as it simmers in its own absurdity, as if any kind of legitimate incident might threaten to break its spell.

“Where the fuck are we?” one of the kids asks, piercing the movie’s veil of innocence with a sudden rejoinder from the modern world. By that point, their guess was as good as mine, and the path this movie follows out of the forest — while still patently absurd and tonally dissonant — settles for a less specific form of pastiche than Razooli has shown himself capable of sustaining. As a filmmaker, he still has some growing up to do, but I sincerely hope he doesn’t lose his larger than life sense of creativity along the way.

Grade: C+

Yellow Veil Pictures and Vinegar Syndrome will release “Riddle of Fire” in theaters on Friday, March 22.

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