Lethal Cardboard Conundrums – Dave Made a Maze

When I first heard about Bill Watterson’s Dave Made a Maze (2017), my first reaction (more or less) was: “The creator of Calvin and Hobbes made a movie? Sold!” It wasn’t until I’d watched it that I discovered this was actually a completely different Bill Watterson (a mistake which some of the personnel involved also made at first) – but it’s not an inappropriate comparison. It’s relatively easy to imagine Calvin growing up to become the titular Dave – especially when you factor in the transformation of a traditional children’s form of play into a hyper-real adventure where cardboard circular saws become deadly weapons.

Annie (Meera Rohit Kumbhani) returns home from a three-day work trip to discover a large cardboard fort in the middle of her apartment living room. This is the latest project of her unemployed boyfriend Dave (Nick Thune), notorious for his unfinished projects, whose voice echoes from the interior to inform her that he can’t come out because he’s lost inside a labyrinth and she definitely shouldn’t come in. He begs her not to pull it apart (even though he’s been stuck inside for three days and has run out of trail mix) and reacts with panic when she shakes the structure (creating an ominous sound of rattling within).

Initially seeking help from his best friend Gordon (Adam Busch), the living room is soon filled with less-than-helpful spectators pulled from amongst their friends group, with some random people plucked from off the street for good measure. These include balding weirdo Leonard (Scott Krinsky); documentary filmmaker Harry (James Urbaniak), who has brought along his cameraman (Scott Narver) and boom operator (Frank Caeti), and is desperately trying to coax the others into giving him the material he wants; the relentlessly cheerful Jane (Kirsten Vangsness); cutesy talking-in-unison hipster couple Brynn (Stephanie Allynne) and Greg (musician Tim Nordwind); a random hobo (Rick Overton) pulled off the street by Gordon because he said he knows cardboard; and a never-explained pair of Flemish tourists (Kamilla Alnes & Drew Knigga).

Frustrated with the lack of progress and Dave’s insistence that he can’t come out, Annie ignores his protestations and crawls through the maze entrance, closely followed by most of the rest of the cast – only to discover that they have all become trapped inside a huge cardboard labyrinth which is bigger on the inside than the outside. Gordon and the documentary crew stick with Annie as she looks for Dave while the others disperse in random directions to marvel at the edifice’s construction, but it soon becomes apparent that they should have taken Dave’s warnings of booby traps more seriously when one of the maze runners steps on a drum pedal and is unexpectedly decapitated by a cardboard axe, causing red yarn and confetti to spray from the quivering stump. In the course of their increasingly perilous journey they find themselves attacked by origami cranes, temporarily transformed into cardboard hand-puppets, fighting off the hypnotic allure of a vaginal tunnel and – through it all – pursued by a beefy Minotaur (professional wrestler John Hennigan).

On one level, it’s possible to read the initial scenario as a mental health intervention. Annie is clearly deeply concerned about her boyfriend’s state of mind, while some of Dave’s dialogue reinforces the impression of a creative individual immersed in depression and struggling to find a direction in life, angry at himself for still relying on financial support from his parents at the age of 30. The maze in which he’s trapped himself is partially constructed from the detritus of unfinished projects (not just his own – also present in the labyrinth is one of Greg’s unfinished student films) and the drive to complete the maze’s construction stands in for his barely-veiled need to achieve something. In some ways this aspect of the story is reminiscent of The Mighty Boosh director Paul King’s Bunny and the Bull (2009), in which the main character’s whole flat has become a claustrophobic equivalent to Dave’s maze, a memory palace which he must confront in order to resolve an unspoken trauma and rejoin the world. The real joy of both movies, however, comes not from these subtexts but from their willingness to revel in their own weirdness. Dave Made a Maze is far more interested in exploring and elaborating on its environment than in constructing a psychologically plausible group therapy session, including just enough of this thread to achieve a believable personal resolution on its own terms without undermining the wider wackiness of the concept which is its primary audience drawcard.

Dave Made a Maze owes its origin to an occasion in director/co-writer Bill Watterson’s childhood when he built a cardboard fort in his bedroom. Leaving a note for his mother on the kitchen bench, he hid quietly inside his creation until she finally dismantled it around him in her ensuing search. His friend Steve Sears, inspired by the anecdote, promptly worked up a screenplay which had most of the final story’s elements already in place. One successful Kickstarter, roughly 30,000 square feet of cardboard and several years later, their collaboration saw fruit as Dave Made a Maze. Watterson himself cites the “four G’s” as his creative inspiration – Ghostbusters (1984), The Goonies (1985), Michel Gondry and Terry Gilliam. The influence of Gondry’s predilection for in-camera special effects and Gilliam’s use of paper cutouts to create his animations can clearly be seen in the final product, with its magnificently designed combinations of cardboard, paper, cellophane, silly string, duct tape and various found materials. Another strong influence is Jim Henson’s Labyrinth (1986), explicitly acknowledged as inspiring the forced-perspective eyeball which, when seen from side-on, reveals itself as a cleverly arranged combination of objects suspended at fixed distances from each other.

Bringing the story to fleshy life is a strong cast of actors drawn largely from comedy circles. Lead performers Meera Rohit Kumbhani and Nick Thune have a healthy scattering of supporting roles in film and TV, with Thune having achieved some minor fame as a stand-up comedian and musician. Adam Busch is probably best known as Warren, the embodiment of toxic masculinity in nerd culture, a recurring villain in the later years of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (2001-2003). He also worked with his then-girlfriend Amber Benson (Tara from Buffy) as co-director on her third feature film Drones (2010), which was billed with the tagline “Close Encounters of the Office Kind” and has been on my want-to-watch list for a decade (any assistance at tracking it down would be gratefully received). James Urbaniak is a distinguished character actor and comedy legend whose many memorable performances include the lead role of Dr. Venture (plus assorted minor roles) in The Venture Bros. (2003-2021), Simon Grim in Hal Hartley’s Henry Fool trilogy (1997-2014) and a wide assortment of roles for stage show/podcast The Thrilling Adventure Hour, most prominent among them the recurring villain Nightmares the Clown.

Among the supporting cast, Stephanie Allynne got her start with the immensely influential improvisational comedy troupe the Upright Citizens Brigade before forming her own improv group Wild Horses with best friends Mary Holland, Lauren Lapkus and Erin Whitehead. One year after meeting and playing opposite fellow comedian Tig Notaro in a weirdly prescient pairing in the voice-over dramedy In a World… (2013) (reviewed here), the two started dating and then married, using their relationship as material for the semi-autobiographical sitcom One Mississippi (2015-2017). Her offsider here is played by Tim Nordwind, who I was astonished to discover is a core member of OK Go, a band best known for their intricately choreographed music videos. Scott Krinsky had a regular supporting role as Jeff Barnes in Chuck (2007-2012), while Kristen Vangsness has a lengthy stint under her belt as FBI Technical Analyst Penelope Garcia in Criminal Minds (2005-2020), Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior (2011) and Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders (2016-2017). Rick Overton achieved minor fame for his fan favourite character Special Agent Taggert in three episodes of Leverage (2008-2009), while Kamilla Alnes had a recurring role in American Horror Story: Hotel (2015-2016).

But it’s no insult to the cast, writers or director when I say that the true stars of the film are production designers Trisha Gum and John Sumner, along with the many talented people working under them. Although their visual conceptions were inspired by the script, the process of realising these ideas in physical reality inevitably drove the reconstruction of the script in turn, and the movie ultimately owes the majority of its success to their sterling work. Trisha Gum,who recruited the lion’s share of the behind-the-scenes creative personnel, got her start on Robot Chicken (2007-2013), where she worked her way up from Puppet Fabrication Intern to Art Department Coordinator, Art Director and Assistant Director. More recently she was Head of Story on The Lego Batman Movie (2017) and co-director of The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part (2019). John Sumner has less experience under his belt, but his recent credits include the art direction of Robot Chicken Couch Gag 2 for The Simpsons (2017) and clay animation for an episode of The Epic Tales of Captain Underpants (2018).

Imaginative, funny, well-acted and with breathtakingly creative practical visual effects, Dave Made a Maze is strongly recommended to anybody who has successfully resisted the directive to put away childish things. It’s currently available in a typically great Blu Ray release from Arrow Films, accompanied by a commentary, deleted scenes, a making-of documentary and “The Worst Fundraising Pitch Video Ever”.

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