For generations, there have been children who have had more fun playing with the box than with the toy that came inside. The reason is easy to understand: a blank box puts no limits on imagination. It can be a clubhouse, a rocket ship, or a submarine, or all at once. It needs no batteries and there is no technology to break down. There’s no disappointing discovery that what looks cool on the commercial does not actually work. Cardboard can be anything and imagination can take you everywhere.
That is the theme of “Dave Made a Maze,” both the story on the screen and the story of the movie itself. Annie (Meera Rohit Kumbhani) comes home from a short trip out of town to find her boyfriend Dave (Nick Thune) has taken over their living room with a cardboard maze, or, rather, a labyrinth so intricate that he is literally lost inside it. Like the TARDIS, Dave’s construction is bigger on the inside. Annie grabs some friends and a box cutter and goes inside. A film crew led by their friend Harry (James Urbaniak) comes along to document (and sometimes shape) the adventure.
Co-writer/director Bill Watterson (not the Calvin and Hobbes cartoonist) has created a slacker/artisanal “Cat and the Canary” or “Ghost and Mr. Chicken,” a comedy/horror film with real stakes and deadpan delivery, all the funnier for being so understated.
The star of the film is unquestionably the maze/labyrinth itself. Production designers Trisha Gum and John Sumner, clearly having the time of their lives, worked with the genius artists of the Cardboard Institute of Technology to create an endlessly inventive world, enchanting, spooky, hilarious, and, when you don’t expect it, pretty scary. Just because the blood is made of yarn and paper, we learn, does not mean it is not real. On the other hand, one labyrinthian portal somehow turns the characters into paper bag puppets, a transformation which thankfully turns out to be temporary. Dave’s maze, a manifestation of his frustration at not having a job that fulfills him, turns out to have a malevolent sentience he and his friends have to battle. Having different artists work on different rooms and corridors adds to the continuous surprise and disconnect, with one section looking like a mock-up from “2001,” another sporting origami birds, and others playing with perspective and space. I was especially taken by the intricate cardboard mechanics underneath one space, with several others hinting at an even more expansive and complex cardboard world.
Part of the film’s charm is the way Annie and Dave’s friends immediately accept the premise and just go for it. But what makes this one of the most imaginative films of the year is the way it makes a virtue of its micro budget. Like Dave himself, the filmmakers have found what the cheapest materials can do better than the most sophisticated animation equipment. They’ve created a tactile environment that puts no limits on their imagination or ours.
Parents should know that this film has very strong language, fantasy peril and violence, a monster, and characters who are injured and killed.
Family discussion: Which was your favorite room in the maze? Why did the maze get out of control?
If you like this, try: “Safety Not Guaranteed” and “Coherence”
Originally published at moviemom.maxlazebnik.com on August 10, 2017.