A magical cardboard journey that sadly falls flat.
As outlandish plots go, trapped in a cardboard labyrinth is up there with the more bizarre. Indeed, a lot of Dave Made a Maze (2017) rests on our ability to suspend our disbelief while watching, writer-director Bill Watterson inviting us to simply go with the flow as he taps into our imaginations. It’s this almost childlike way of viewing this strange yet simple story that gives this comedy-fantasy-drama its edge, the spectacular set pieces becoming increasingly impressive as we travel further into the labyrinth alongside its characters. However, although there’s a lot to admire within its vast cardboard walls, that central concept often loses its spark, particularly when we get into the complex reasons behind Dave’s (Nick Thune) sudden urge to construct his maze.
Rather than gradually building up to that main kernel of an idea, Watterson instead dives right into the plot, a brief moment of Dave being interviewed about the labyrinth followed by a quirky animated title sequence, which gives us all the background we need to know about this character and his messed-up life. We quickly learn that Dave is creative yet unable to finish anything, his to-do list piled high with other more important tasks when he decides to construct a cardboard fort in his apartment. But when his girlfriend Annie (Meera Rohit Kumbhani) returns home to find this monstrosity in their living room, Dave confesses that he’s trapped inside as “it’s much bigger on the inside”. When Annie, Dave’s friends, a documentary film crew, and visiting Flemish tourists can’t persuade him to simply come out, they all decide to go in. And once they’re inside the labyrinth, that’s when the fun really begins.
Although this barely explained opening leaves the film in danger of losing our interest even before it’s really begun, Watterson and co-writer Steven Sears know that the real selling point of the film is the maze itself, both of them eager to show what has been achieved with little more than glue guns and cardboard (an estimated 30,000 square feet was used overall). And once we venture inside the labyrinth alongside the group, the sight is so amazing that they can be forgiven for rushing. What begins as huge cardboard walls covered in playing cards or musical notes soon gives way to even more wondrous and inventive creations as the group get further into the belly of the maze. Watterson plays around with perspective and optical illusions, living origami (of the killer variety), puppetry and so on, while art director Jeff White brings each of these ideas to spectacular life. Mixing the magical realism of Michel Gondry with the fantasy worlds of Terry Gilliam (two big influences mentioned in the extras on this Blu-ray disc), Watterson enjoys throwing us into this cardboard realm alongside his characters as they work their way through each of the rooms searching for Dave, and an exit. But the awe soon gives way to horror when the deadly nature of Dave’s construction comes to light, the group slowly being picked off one by one, with ribbons, tissue paper and silly string bursting out of their bodies in lieu of blood (a hilarious touch that is used throughout). And of course, no labyrinth is complete without a Minotaur (John Hennigan).
The cast revel in the fantasy world built around them, eagerly throwing themselves into the action and the many comedy moments that pop up (such as the group’s first deadly encounter, or when one of them is turned into a cardboard marionette with a habit for repetition). However, fun as it is, Dave’s simple plot can’t maintain the weight of what is essentially watching people stumble around different cardboard rooms, no matter how incredible those places look when they get there. While there are deeper things at play here, most notably ideas around procrastination, depression and the struggle of creativity, Watterson and Sears can’t quite mould these together into a fully formed thing, both of them too keen to get on with the spectacle rather than let us get to grips with exactly who Dave is, or what his relationship with Annie is really like. One brilliant scene has Dave and Annie repeat a sequence over and over, the background slowly turning to cardboard as they tear away different paper outfits that they wear, both of them trying to figure out some unspoken issue they have. What exactly that is Watterson and Sears leave to us to decide, yet you can’t help wishing that they had included more moments like this throughout to add depth and heart – moments that would give us more of a connection to the thin story and its characters, and to make this more memorable than it ends up being.
It’s a shame that the narrative is the overriding issue that sinks the film, especially when it is obvious how much time, love and care has been put into Dave’s production. The brief but detailed documentary included in this Arrow Blu-ray release backs up this sentiment, the careful craft that the art department tirelessly put into these sets nothing short of extraordinary, while the whole crew worked closely together to complete the finished illusion and bring the maze to life onscreen. Although most of the other extras here are filler (extra interviews, extended scenes and the usual trailers), the extensive storyboards and animations that were used during pre-production are a welcome inclusion, with the excellent commentary from Watterson and Sears giving us further insight into how certain shots were achieved (such as the running puppets). Yet despite all this, Dave Made a Maze is a disc you’d rarely revisit.
Listening to him talk throughout the extras, it’s obvious that Dave is a film close to Watterson’s heart, and it’s hard not to be won over by the effort the writer-director has put into this passion project, as well as the astounding collective spirit of the whole cast and crew. And although it can’t be denied that there are parts of the film that will stay with you, in particular the amazing production design, there’s just too little to chew on in the way of plot to keep your interest. The joy you feel during that first foray into the maze soon wears off, Dave quickly becoming a tiresome trip that has far too many jokes that don’t land, and an ending that is wrapped up too abruptly for it to make any sort of impact. Characterisation also wouldn’t have been amiss, especially for Annie and Dave – an intriguing pair who we long to learn more about, but never do. And when you’re left thinking that about two of the main characters, it’s clear that Dave is a missed opportunity, in more ways than one.
Dave Made a Maze is out on Blu-ray from 28th January 2019
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
Continue the conversation over on The Digital Fix Forum