“Dave Made a Maze” is a whimsical fantasy about a dude who gets lost in a living-room labyrinth of his own making. Bill Watterson’s directorial debut is itself like an awesomely scaled home craft project. The idiosyncrasy and resourcefulness are impressive, even inspiring to a point. But at 80-odd minutes, the self-conscious novelty begins to seem stretched, enough so that you notice this clever conceit is never particularly funny or meaningful — just cute. Nonetheless, it’s just the kind of project that’s bound to accrue a cult following.
Dave (Nick Thune) is an artist plagued by creative block. When his girlfriend, Annie (Meera Rohit Kumbhani), leaves for the weekend, he devises a wee craft project to get the juices flowing. Upon her return, Annie is nonplussed to discover the results occupying their entire apartment living room: Dave has built a cardboard maze, and while he responds cheerfully to her greeting and sounds just inches away, he cannot seem to make his way out.
“It’s bigger on the inside,” he calls, pleading with her not to rattle the sides (which he experiences like a major seismic event), nor to come inside. He does give her permission to call his bestie, bearded and bespectacled Gordon (Adam Busch), for advice. But all too soon the absurd crisis has evolved into a party, with the couple’s friends — including insistent documentarian Harry (James Urbaniak) and his crew — promptly barging into the cardboard confines to “rescue” their hidden host.
They discover right away that, impossibly, it is indeed bigger on the inside — much, much bigger. Dave’s imagination can be credited for certain peculiarities, but the maze appears to have taken on a life of its own, defying directional as well as spatial logic. It also springs booby traps for the unwary. The first to die is overenthusiastic Jane (Kristen Vangness of “Criminal Minds”). Still, her gory demise is depicted in terms of red yarn and confetti, making “Dave Made a Maze” not so much a horror movie as an antic riff on genre conventions. Other perils encountered include an attack by origami birds, a “giant growing lady part” whose appetite is all too Freudian, and the labyrinth’s very own Minotaur (WWE wrestler John Hennigan in a cardboard bull mask).
Gordon succinctly analyzes Dave’s problem: “He gets all fired up about stuff but never finishes anything.” The solution Dave himself hits upon is that for once he simply must complete this project — actually finish constructing the maze — in order to save himself, Annie and any other survivors.
“Dave Made a Maze” purportedly utilized more than 30,000 square feet of scrap cardboard to realize its fantasy world. That note of trivia is almost a more satisfying curio than the film itself, which is amiably goofy, admirably resourceful — and seldom more than just mildly amusing. Actor-turned-first-time director Watterson delights in the invention of his design collaborators, but the script he co-wrote with Steven Sears feels like a clever comedy sketch idea expanded to feature length without developing the substance or bite needed to sustain itself. Dave’s generic slacker angst (“I’m 30 years old and my parents are still giving me money”) isn’t thematic weight enough to anchor an episodic endeavor enlivened only so much by decent comedy talent dealing with absurdist situations in a hip deadpan that grows monotonous, with dialogue that too often sounds less-than-inspirationally improvised.
And yet as a sheer stunt, the movie is always watchable, whether in its imaginatively handmade sets (production design by John Sumner and Trisha Gum, art direction by Jeff White), a puppet interlude, or several diverse animations (credited to Musa Brooker/Platypus Pictureworks). Like a viral baby-goat video, “Dave Made a Maze” is very cute. For some, that may be more than enough. And even those who want considerably more will have to admit that its brand of twee is at least as distinctive as anything in a line of similarly thin but puckish films like “Forbidden Zone” or “Be Kind Rewind.”