Bill Watterson’s Dave Made a Maze is a film that leaves you grasping for points of comparison. How to describe it? A Murakami Merrie Melody? A Jim Henson film written by Philip K. Dick? Jorge Luis Borges presents Pee-wee’s Playhouse? All tempting descriptions. But I’ll leave it to Watterson himself to explain his mad-cap little film:
“I wanted to explore the mad fantasy worlds and heightened realities of a Labyrinth or a Legend, but to see that journey taken by foul-mouthed adults rather than a band of plucky tweens.”
And though it satisfies as a rousing adventure film throw-back, Dave Made a Maze is concerned first and foremost with creating an entire fantasy mindscape for it to inhabit. With just over 30,000 square feet of cardboard, Watterson succeeded in conjuring up one of the most vivid, imaginative, and original movie worlds in recent cinema. It lingers in the mind much like Mel Stuart’s chocolate factory, Henry Selick’s Halloween Town, and George Miller’s post-apocalyptic Outback.
The plot: a young man named Dave (Nick Thune) gets bored one weekend, makes a maze in his apartment living room out of cardboard boxes, and gets lost inside. A team of friends led by his girlfriend Annie (Meera Rohit Kumbhani) venture in only to discover that the maze is bigger than it looks on the outside and seems to have a mind of its own.
And that’s it, basically. The rest of the film follows Dave and Annie try to escape the maze through a procession of odd, bizarre rooms, passageways, and obstacles—many of which are deadly. Each new area outdoes the last in terms of fanciful weirdness. There’s a room full of garbage guarded by giant origami cranes where a giant cardboard Olmec head belches sentient scarves of cloth. Elsewhere there’s a room of movie screens that transforms passersby into black-and-white film static. There’s a hallway, accessible only through a magic drainpipe, that mutates occupants into brown bag hand-puppets. And scattered everywhere are tripwires and hidden switches that activate head-slicing, body-piercing booby traps. The strange thing is that Dave doesn’t remember making all of them: as the maze gained consciousness it developed the ability to mutate new areas, seemingly based on his psyche. Dave’s old keyboard becomes a hallway of piano keys, the aforementioned movie screen room a harem of silhouette concubines.
Dave Made a Maze follows in the grand tradition of no-budget fantasy/horror classics where the purpose was less telling a story than providing set-ups for a special effects stag reel: Dennis Muren and Jack Woods’ Equinox (1970), Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead (1981), Douglas McKeown’s The Deadly Spawn (1983). But unlike these films which were largely content with their emotional vapidity, Watterson strove to tell an effective story, a kind of mid-life coming-of-age fairy tale. The maze represents Dave’s anxieties and frustrations with his thirtysomething, going-nowhere life. And as Dave and Annie escape they reconcile their feelings and relationship, ultimately realizing what’s important in life: each other.
Yet its attempts at genuine pathos fall somewhat short thanks to its own incessant comedy. Dave and Annie travel together with a group of other friends, most notably a three-person film crew who jump at the chance to make a documentary on the strange maze. Their leader Harry (James Urbaniak) takes every single opportunity to shove a camera in their face during every emotional climax, egging them on to repeat the things they say with more emotion. I suppose their inclusion could be a tongue-and-cheek jab at the kind of pretentious filmmaking Watterson sought to avoid. But like a punchline repeated four or five times in a row, they wear out their welcome really fast. I wish Dave Made a Maze had either devoted itself to silly, over-the-top camp—think Raimi’s Evil Dead II (1987)—or committed itself to be a more straightforward fantasy-adventure film like Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits (1981). The two approaches don’t mix as successfully as I think Watterson had hoped.
But make no mistake, if I mention films like Time Bandits or Evil Dead II, it’s because I consider Dave Made a Maze one of their number. Somebody needs to get this film in the hands of the programmers of the Alamo Drafthouse ASAP. We have the makings of a stone-cold cult classic with this one.