Dave Made a Maze. It's a surprisingly apt yet completely mysterious title that tells you everything and nothing about Bill Watterson's first film. It's one of those projects that passed me by completely when it was released and has continued to elude me ever since. I randomly stumbled upon it when I was desperately looking for something interesting to watch. It was a haphazard pick on the off-chance that it might be something worthwhile. And guess what, it turned out to be a true delight. The kind of film you wish would come by on a weekly basis.
There's something amazing about discovering a little gem like this, completely out of the blue. No expectations, no preconceptions, only a growing sense of awe and wonder as the film progresses. But at the same time it also saddens me, as it highlights the fact that there are some lovely, creative and original films out there that fail to get the support they need to reach their target audience. How is it possible, in a world of social media, hype creation and endless pimping, that a film like this escaped me for nearly two years? Clearly marketing dollars are still a force to be reckoned with.
The challenge with Dave Made a Maze is that it is a very tricky film to review. There's so many things I'd love to mention, so many great ideas and moments I'd love to highlight, but by doing so, I would be spoiling much of the surprise and delight that makes this film special. Dave Made a Maze is a film that works best if you go in blank, without a clear idea of what to expect. Then again, if nobody is willing to write about a film, how are people going to find out about it? So excuse me if I'll be a little vague here and there, it's very much intentional.
The plot is fun enough, but it's hardly the main attraction of the film. After a weekend away from home, Annie returns to find a giant cardboard maze in the middle of her living room. Dave, as so eloquently explained by the title, built the maze over the weekend, but he appears to be stuck inside. When Annie wants to crawl into the construction, Dave convinces her it's not very safe to do so. Annie has no clue how to deal with this ordeal, so she calls Gordon, Dave's best friend. In his wake a bunch of other friends and familiars join the spectacle and against Dave's advice they all enter the maze.
While the idea behind the film is grand, the execution has to be on par. That's not an easy feat for an indie film with a limited budget. Luckily Watterson finds the perfect balance between DIY charm and actual visual surprise and wonder. The maze in fact is pretty damn amazing. Sure enough, it doesn't always look expensive or even all that complex, but it's surprisingly convincing and many of the visual tricks are absolute genius. It makes it very easy to go along with the idea, which is something I hadn't quite expected once I realized where this film was trying to go. It just shows that you don't need a stellar budget or first-rate special effects to make something crazy come to life.
The soundtrack is decent but almost negligible. The music helps to establish the lighthearted tone and keeps the film fun and breezy, but that's pretty much where it stops. A films like this could've benefited from a stronger, more definitive score, especially when the characters begin their exploration of the maze, but alas. At least it doesn't get in the way and the film isn't in direct need of a spectacular soundtrack, but for an indie project that doesn't have a lot of means to wow, it does feel like wasted potential.
The cast is probably the weakest part of the film. Not that they did a terrible job, but none of the actors made a big impression on me and some of them had a tough time finding the right balance between portraying an irritating character and being irritating. Thune and Kumbhani are decent leads, though they fail to convince as a couple. Busch is solid in a mostly supporting role, whereas someone like Urbaniak should've been able to do more with his part. In the end it's not that much of an issue as the film doesn't really rely on its actors to succeed, but it's probably telling that I liked them best in their puppet forms.
Dave Made a Maze is a film that lives on its concept and its execution. The build-up to the entry of the maze is pretty much perfect, but up until that point there's a lingering feeling that the film may not to be able to deliver. Once you enter the maze that feeling goes away pretty quickly, but then you start to wonder if and for how long Watterson will be able to keep things interesting. When that worry is finally laid to rest, it becomes clear you're watching something quite unique and out there. A film by a dedicated group of creatives who knew they had a killer idea on their hands and who possessed the actual skills to make it happen.
Not everyone is going to love this film, but that's okay. It's a bit of a weird beast with a very peculiar sense of humor. I'm sure though that there are just as many people out there who are going to love this film to bits. Dave Made a Maze is creative, it's original, baffling and disorienting, but most importantly the execution is above and beyond and Watterson succeeded time and time again in exceeding my expectations. It's the kind of film that was built for cult but somehow hasn't been discovered by the right crowd yet. If you like your films a little different, do give this one a chance because it really is something else.