“Dave Made a Maze” is the most jaw-droppingly original movie of 2017, a delirious and deliberate act of DIY whimsy in the Terry Gilliam style.
It cannot possibly have been as cheap to make as it looks. The sets are literally made of cardboard. But genius often scoffs at the word “budget.”
Start with the simplest of concepts — this frustrated, directionless goof Dave (Nick Thune) has built a labyrinth out of old refrigerator boxes in the living room of his apartment. Girlfriend Annie (Meera Rohit Kumbhani) comes home and just rolls her eyes.
There he goes again. And yeah, he’s “lost” inside it.
But this thing “is bigger than it looks,” he insists. “Don’t come IN here! It’s DANGEROUS!” And no, you can’t tear it apart. I mean, he spent his whole weekend building it, its blind alleys, chimneys, tunnels and booby traps.
Oh yes — it’s booby-trapped.
“Call Gordon! Call Leonard! JUST Leonard!”
His pals are no help. Gordon ( Adam Busch of TV’s “Colony”) shows up with a documentary film crew, led by indie film icon and Hal Hartley muse James Urbaniak.
Leonard (Scott Krinsky)? He shows up with friends, Flemish tourists, the works.
They can’t lead Dave out. The maze shakes and smokes and every time they push against it, the sound of shattering glass and rending metal screeches from it.
“Don’t come in here” is ignored. Annie’s got her box cutter and she’s going in. And everybody and I mean EVERYbody else follows.
What they and we are treated to is a visual delight, dazzling cardboard rooms rendered from say, an electronic keyboard package, or walls of pasted-together playing cards.
And no, it’s not safe. It’s taken on a life of its own. There’s a monstrous Gilliam-style cardboard head straight out of “TRON,” predatory origami birds that attack and peck.
Slide into this room, and everybody is transformed into paper-bag puppets, cross into that one, death dealing axes or Vietnam War punji sticks await.
Hell, there’s even a Minotaur. And since the maze isn’t quite finished, there really is no way out.
“We’re going to die, and it’s all YOUR fault,” one and all scream at Dave.
Save for Harry (Urbaniak), the doc director who interviews everyone as they explore, manipulates performances (“More ‘childlike WONDER’ this time!”) and stays on task, even when people die.
The deaths are tiny little comic works of art — an arterial spray of red confetti, yarn and silly string.
Seriously, if this little indie pic’s production designer, Jeff White, isn’t nominated for an Oscar, the Art Director’s Guild doesn’t know genius when it sees it.
Actor-turned-director and co-writer Bill Watterson keeps the tone light and the surprises surprising, for the most part. The energy flags as the picture loses a little of its momentum in the middle acts. It’s only 80 minutes long, so even that doesn’t hurt it much.
The characters are dizzy, the film-making jokes (documentary fakery) zing and the stakes seem high even when we’re seeing characters ground up by cardboard gears, sliced by cardboard saws (“Paper cuts!”) in a cloud of paper-shredder plasma.
Urbaniak stands out in the cast — a droll voice of ’80s hipster nerd slumming among millennial slackers — though Busch, Thune and Stephanie Allynne all make funny impressions.
The whole merry affair walks a tightrope between ingenious and happy accident, skating along on a killer gimmick and the make-do/can-do DIY spirit of the production team.
Seriously, why bother making a sequel to “Labyrinth” now that “Dave Made a Maze?”
MPAA Rating: unrated, profanity, cartoon violence
Credits:Directed by Bill Watterson, script by Steven Sears and Bill Watterson. A Gravitas Ventures release.
Running time: 1:21