Jason Pettus’s review published on Letterboxd:
2016 movie viewings, #130. Netflix Originals can be notoriously hit-and-miss, so I'm always glad when I come across another one that was particularly well-done; but in the case of today's, the highly entertaining and sometimes moving The Dwarvenaut, I really wish that Netflix had marketed it a different way than they did, because they're really giving a false impression of what it's about and are therefore losing a big section of the audience who would really enjoy it.
At its heart it's a look at Brooklyn-based toy manufacturer Stefan Pokorny, who specializes in ridiculously detailed miniatures for the Dungeons & Dragons roleplaying system, not just characters and not just dungeons but entire modular ecosystems, kits containing hundreds of pieces that let DMs mix and match into whatever kind of environment their particular campaign is going through. The hook of the documentary itself, then, is that it's following Pokorny and his highly successful company Dwarven Forge as they go through their latest direct-to-fans Kickstarter campaign, which will essentially bankrupt the company if they don't raise the two million dollars needed to fund their massively ambitious plans to create an entire town as their next miniature kit; director Josh Bishop then uses this as an excuse to also look at Pokorny himself, his background, and what makes a guy like this tick.
Unfortunately Netflix is promoting this as another "ha ha let's gawk at the nerdy loser while we're nominally rooting for him" movie, stitching together for the trailer all of Pokorny's worst moments on-camera to present him as this sorta real-life Napoleon Dynamite, a geeky loser who is following this "American Movie"-type dream of opening a weirdly niche and unproven miniatures company against all odds. And that's a real shame, because the reality couldn't be any more different: turns out that Pokorny is actually an adopted Korean-American who grew up as a skateboarder and graffiti artist in a pre-gentrified '80s Manhattan, a hipster tough kid who used to hang out with the Beastie Boys crowd back in the day, and that Dwarven Forge is actually a multi-million-dollar company with international acclaim that's already been around for over a decade, and that only does Kickstarter campaigns because they've found it to be a more financially expedient way to sell directly to their customers than the typical route of using gaming and hobby stores as high-markup middlemen.
That makes the documentary a much different and better thing than you might expect -- not a cringe-humor look at a Comic Book Guy wannabe, but rather a deep portrait of a brilliant but bull-headed artist who has spent literally his entire life listening to hundreds of people tell him why he "can't make a career out of drawing little fantasy cartoons," just to beg, borrow and steal as much as he's needed to prove all of them wrong. (It's really telling, for example, that Pokorny attended the prestigious School of Visual Arts in New York, where he received a classical education in traditional, representational art, yet this fact is entirely glossed over in all the film's marketing and promotional material.) When ignoring Netflix's misguided marketing, however, you're left with one of the most engaging character-based documentaries I've seen in years, a true tale of struggle and triumph within the world of the fine arts, and it comes strongly recommended to one and all. May it hopefully be the big sleeper hit of 2016 for you that it was for me.