Riddle of Fire conjures the kind of spell it’s hard to break free from

Three mischievous children embark on an odyssey when their mother asks them to run an errand in Riddle of Fire. Rory Doherty highlights its insistence on hijinks and strangeness, not to mention the offbeat humour and daydreamy summer vibe.

Emulating live-action Disney movies of the 1970s is a strange choice for a filmmaker making their debut film, but after watching Riddle of Fire, it’s clear writer-director Weston Razooli has no ordinary ambitions. The family fare of 70s Disney came just after founder Walt’s death and was an extended period of creative stagnation for the brand, hence why most of their kid-starring, soft-adventure, slightly folksy escapism—Pete’s Dragon, The Biscuit Eater, Candleshoe—were just awful. And yet, these low-stakes, hokey films had a distinct texture to them: a shambling, stilted, but charming blend of whimsy and sometimes actual magic that evokes a fantasy of agency in whatever rural or small town setting they decided it would be cheap to film in.

For his first feature, Razooli pays homage to a crummy genre of film and leans into what made them unique—an unobtrusive style, unpolished performances, childlike priorities and instincts—but shoots on glorious 16mm to make an outdoorsy adventure fascinated with faery magic and rough-housing gangs. An insistence on hijinks and strangeness, not to mention its offbeat humour and daydreamy summer vibe, elevates Riddle of Fire above being a curious pastiche of modest old-fashioned entertainment, capturing the spirit of low-rent child escapism better than a flailing Disney company ever could.

Brothers Jodie (Skyler Peters) and Hazel (Charlie Stover) and their friend Alice (Phoebe Ferro) have one plan for their summer holidays in their native Wyoming: play video games. It’s a couple days before they head to racing camp and they don’t exactly own the latest gaming system (if you prefer your leads to not be “little scamps”, I’m afraid you will be put off by their petty thievery) but the biggest problem is that Hazel and Jodie’s sick, bedbound mother Julie (Danielle Hoetmer) is refusing to give them the TV password—it’s a beautiful day outside, after all!

A deal is struck: they’ll be permitted a couple hours of gaming time only if they pick up a fresh blueberry pie for her, so the trio pack their paintball guns, hop on their dirt bikes, and begin a romp that will see them stranded in the mountains and relying on quick wits, firm friendship, and some unlikely supernatural aid to get Julie what she needs—if they avoid the ire of a witch, her disciples and her huntsman boyfriend from the Wyoming hillsides.

Apologies if this plot description sounds too much like a faded cardboard VHS blurb—there’s no way to get on Riddle of Fire’s level without adopting the cutesy tone and perspective of mischievous kids whose biggest obstacle is obtaining one speckled egg for a pie recipe. Tone is where Razooli’s film shines the brightest—the adventure is treated as seriously as a blueberry pie mission can feasibly be, with very few winking nods to the adult audience that would undermine the potency of the story’s charms. The inexperienced young cast have clearly been encouraged to give it their all—what the lack in craft they make up for with loud-voiced confidence. In a film where sincerity is the most valuable currency, they’re commendable companions through this magick wilderness.

When the sincerity gives way to self-aware nods, it’s usually through alternative-feeling comedy: most of the bit parts and NPCs our kids encounter are played by (what feel like) unprofessional actors, who offer deadpan, hilariously delivered asides whenever Razooli wants to inject some contemporary comic weirdness into the dialogue. The fact that boutique exploitation cinema label Vinegar Syndrome picked this film up for distribution makes a lot of sense—they’re a real haven for this kind of alternative, subdued comedy. Riddle of Fire also understands that one of cinema’s greatest honours is playing a mean grown-up in a kids adventure film—as the rough and tough huntsman John Redrye, Charles Halford jumps at the chance of showing seething hatred for the nuisance-making characters.

Riddle of Fire suffers by not knowing when to bow out—it’s the type of 114 minute movie that doesn’t realise it should be about 20 minutes shorter, and the finely constructed sense of old-school charm starts to fray the more it’s stretched out over the deliberately shambling story structure. But thankfully the film isn’t concerned with pure parody, which would tire out the runtime even more noticeably; it actually tries to have a heart, with a running theme of exploring the way that children view their parents, how they rub up against their flaws and weigh them against their caregiving.

When combined with the pan pipes and soft chimes of the score and the quality of sunlight hitting our characters’ faces, Riddle of Fire feels like a film concerned with the sensory effects of nostalgia, acknowledging how the films it emulates transformed a child’s world into something with peculiar and attractive freedoms. This kind of spell is hard to break free from.