For my inaugural trip to the Tallgrass Film Festival in Wichita, Kansas I was presenting my own short film. I quickly looked the schedule up online and realized I was programed to screen in front of a film I knew nothing about. That film turned out to be the visually magnificent adventure that is Bill Watterson’s Dave Made a Maze.
Before I go any further let me get two things out of the way. First of all, so no one is confused, this film was not made by the guy who gave us “Calvin and Hobbs”. This Bill Watterson is a veteran television actor getting behind the camera as a director for the first time. Second, for his initial effort, this Bill Waterson puts his most ridiculous foot forward.
So let’s start with a litmus test. If absurdism ain’t your thing, you are most definitely not the target audience for this one. If, however, you are up for a downright wacky romp through the world’s greatest, most dangerous and technically impressive cardboard maze, I highly recommend you suspend ALL disbelief and give yourself over to this madcap labyrinthine excursion.
Basically, Dave, played affably by Nick Thune, is a frustrated artist who attempts to conquer his creative blockage by building an old-school packing material playhouse in the living room. Like a cardboard Tardis that playhouse evolves into a living maze that is “bigger on the inside”, and by the time Dave’s girlfriend Annie (Meera Rohit Kumbhani) discovers the mess in their mutual space- he is hopelessly lost in his own invention. I won’t give away some of the fun jokes that play out next, but eventually a whole gaggle of friends and friends of friends wander into the perilous paper puzzle after him. Once inside they face the deadly pitfalls of the labyrinth as well as a minotaur on their tail. Stand out moments, include James Urbaniak’s scene stealing performance as Harry, the documentary filmmaker, as well as their friend, Jane’s (Kristen Vangness) terribly entertaining death sequence.
As fun as the entire cast and script are, the real cinema magic here are the visuals. The maze comes to life through a combination of live action puppetry, forced perspective, optical illusions, stop motion animation, and even a zoetrope. The crew used tens of thousands of square feet of actual cardboard scraps to build the sets, and cinematographer Jon Boal expertly photographed them. Watching the resulting lo-fi VFX, honestly made me giddy. Sure, there are some plot holes, and you may not care that much about Dave or his associates. You might even find some of the humor a tad too dad jokey for your taste, but it is hard not to marvel at the visual masterpiece that anchors the film. When Bill Watterson made Dave Made a Maze he really made one hell of a maze (or as the film points out, a labyrinth). Watch it on a big screen if you can.