Critipeg: Riddle of Fire

★★★ out of five

Supplied photo

Hear ye, hear ye, and gather round for this tale of whimsy and woe and whippersnappers. Debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) but just now hitting the arthouse circuit, Riddle of Fire is an endearing modern fairytale mired in a strange milieu – just where it likes it.

The film follows a trio of valiant, pint-sized paladins, brothers Hazel (Charlie Stover) and Jodie A’Dale (Skyler Peters) and their friend and de facto leader, Alice (Phoebe Ferro).

They embark on a noble quest across the kingdom of Ribbon, Wyo. at the behest of the ailing Queen Mother (the A’Dales’ mother, bedridden with a cold) for the restorative powers of the Holy Grail (a freshly baked blueberry pie). In exchange, the heroes are promised glory and mystic treasures hitherto untold (TV screen time).

Their metaphorical swords clash with a roving band of flower people, The Enchanted Blade Gang, led by actual witch Anna-Freya Hollyhock (Lio Tipton). She’s halfway between Morgan le Fay and Charles Manson, barking spells at her young and impressionable coven, with Tex Watson analogue and Scooby-Doo-type villain John Redrye (Charles Halford) begrudgingly by her side. What they’re after is tangential and esoteric. Their role underfoot of the three champions is what defines them.

“The best things in life are cute,” Hazel says to Jodie, neatly espousing the film’s philosophy. Among the limericks and chaos magick is a frank and farcical look at childhood adventure, the days spent stomping through the woods near the highway like Robinson Crusoe. The medieval styling is an astute reach for identity, and it’s fresh enough to complement the shaggy-dog narrative befitting such a never-ending story.

Although syncretic in family-friendly influence (eat your heart out, Chris Columbus), Riddle of Fire has a unique colloquialism to its dialogue intended to disarm and appeal to ironic adult sensibility.

A blithe acknowledgement of the limitations of child-actor delivery endows them with alternating eloquence and impudence, all through stammers and mistimed cues. Young, subtitled Jodie is given hilariously precocious dialogue to great effect.

What may prove most alienating about this project is that it’s essentially a kid’s film exclusively for adults. And unlike Moonrise Kingdom or Stand by Me, it fails to really illuminate any darkened corners of juvenile recollection.

It’s pure romp, and a protracted one at that, given its nearly two-hour runtime. The picture is too quaint to earnestly en- dear itself and too broad to be personal. By the third act, much of the enchantment has worn off.

The film is shot on 16mm Kodak film, perhaps in the hopes of a feature-length rendition of the proverbial Kodak moment. It gives Riddle of Fire a warm glow, worn and wrinkled like a $5 bill in a pocket representing a child’s fortune, and a score filled with ye olde synthesizers provides an extra shimmer to the fantasy.

A hilarious scene has Hazel distracted by food and drink at a campfire, scuttling their carefully crafted plan before he and the audience are confronted with the gravity of the situation. And the one use of a licensed song buoys a disappointing climax.

An urban odyssey of Homeric ambition and Lilliputian proportions spanning rocky mountains, seedy nightclubs and chicken coops, it’s fitting that the best parts lie between the broader strokes.

Published in Volume 78, Number 23 of The Uniter (March 28, 2024)

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