Playing with Fire

Keegan-Michael Key and John Cena in 'Playing with Fire'. (Doane Gregory/Paramount Pictures)
Keegan-Michael Key and John Cena in 'Playing with Fire'. (Doane Gregory/Paramount Pictures)


A team of smoke jumpers rescue a trio of kids from a burning cottage but with no parents or legal guardians around they’re forced to look after them at the station house for the whole weekend. High jinks and life lessons ensue.


It's always difficult to review movies aimed squarely at children, especially those with no concessions to adult audiences. Playing With Fire is the perfect case in point. For adults, Playing With Fire is almost objectively bad. It's massively stupid, everyone overacts to within an inch of their lives, it's not very well put together, and it's hyperactive, slapstick humour is mostly about as funny as a heart attack.

For kids, though, I'm not 100% sure that it is a total, well, misfire. It helps that I saw it in a public preview full of kids, and their reaction was quite telling. I generally find that, despite their reputation, kids tend to be much less disruptive in movies (age-appropriate ones, anyway) than adults, but it is also much easier to tell if they're not enjoying something by how restless they become. And, credit where credit's due, Playing With Fire at least worked enough for its target audience to keep pretty much all the children in the audience still throughout.

The problem, though, is that for an alleged comedy, it elicited surprisingly few laughs from pretty much anyone in the audience. Kids tend to have a great appreciation for slapstick, and there was little about the over-the-top tomfoolery of John Cena, Keegan-Michael Key, and a catastrophically unfunny John Leguizamo that comes within a million miles of something like classic Looney Tunes cartoons. A timely reference, I know, but it still works.

If not, looking at something much more contemporary, the first couple of Diary of a Wimpy Kid films were filled with genuinely quite funny slapstick that definitely worked their teenage audiences, but I would be lying if I said that they didn't elicit a chuckle or two from me. Playing With Fire is (mostly) sweet and innocuous enough, sure, but it's so desperately unfunny to anyone but the youngest kids that all of the film's mediocre virtues go straight down the toilet.   

The biggest problem, though, is that in a world where Pixar, Harry Potter, Star Wars, Disney and Laika exist, why on earth should kids bother with this? More, when there are so many films that don't treat children like drooling idiots, that don't just take for granted that they would accept any old crap as long as it's cutesy enough, why should we reward the cynical motives behind the film by subjecting our kids (and ourselves) to it?

Also, let's be honest, these reviews are aimed at adults, both in terms of whether you should take kids to a movie and just what kind of time you're going to have in the cinema alongside them. It's one thing having your kids sit through this nonsense; it's a much bigger ask for you to do the same. Had it just been on one of the kids channels on DSTV or even on one of the streaming services, it would be easy enough to just sit your kids in front of the TV, while you head off to do literally anything else. Spending actual money and sitting through all 90-odd minutes of it? It's a bit of an ask really.

If you really out of films this holiday season to take your little ones to, I suppose this will just about suffice – for them, if not for you – but however harmless Playing With Fire is and however much the stars of the film are generally pretty likeable and funny (again, not so much here, though), it is absolutely a last resort kind of thing.

Sadly, aside for Star Wars and Frozen 2, it's not a particularly promising couple of months for kid-friendly films so that last resort may come well before you want it to.