They say that comedy is subjective, but even that benign truism can’t begin to explicate the lunacy at the heart of Hundreds of Beavers. It’s mind-boggling that a couple of buddies got together and concocted this strange brew — a (mostly) silent, black-and-white-slapstick epic inspired by Looney Tunes cartoons and musicals, and consisting of more gags per minute than even ZAZ in their heyday. It’s a genuine oddity and a true labor of love, too; director/co-writer/editor Mike Cheslik and producer/co-writer/star Ryland Tews have been friends since high school, and their films (including 2018’s Lake Michigan Monster, in retrospect a dry run for much of the formal brio on display here ) seem to have emerged from a kind of shared psychosis. Beavers is composed of sharp, high-contrast digital black-and-white photography, Monty Python-esque cut-out animation, blue screen digital trickery, and all manner of post-production tinkering. The film’s press notes describe some of the efforts involved here, including 12 weeks of filming in Michigan and Minnesota in sub-zero temperatures, and four years (!) of off-and-on work on the various compositing effects. One is left staring slack-jawed at this singular, unique work, a testament to the blinkered, single-minded determination of two weirdos (with the help of a dedicated cast and crew, of course) who think that concocting different scenarios of killing beavers is really funny. It’s a miracle that they mostly pull it off.
It should come as no surprise that there’s not much of a plot to detail here; when a bunch of beavers destroy Jean Kayak’s (Tews) Applejack Cider brewery, he decides to begin hunting them. After falling in love with the local fur trader’s daughter, Kayak learns he must bring the man a hundred beavers to win the daughter’s hand in marriage. The rest of the movie constructs an escalating series of events as the novice trapper learns the ropes of his new trade, gradually leveling up from a know-nothing dunderhead to a God-like hunter of immense prowess. This process is detailed via a series of elaborately conceived and executed gags, a veritable avalanche of non-stop physical comedy that builds and builds until it reaches a crescendo the likes of which we’ve never seen (it involves beavers joining together to form a giant figurine, not unlike Voltron or a kaiju). Over the course of its (admittedly) exhausting 110-minute runtime, the filmmakers take The Simpsons‘ rake joke to new heights. Writ large, the film’s jokes go from funny to belabored and then back to funny, the filmmakers’ exhibiting a deft hand with well-timed smash cuts and elaborate montage. It’s a beautifully designed movie, too, occasionally resembling the graphic sensibility of Russian constructivism design and German Expressionism — a long sequence set inside the beavers’ headquarters even brings to mind Fritz Lang, of all things. Lest that sound too highfalutin, there are also lots of piss and shit jokes, and extended scenes of beavers being ripped apart and rent asunder — but don’t worry, the beavers are realized using human-sized costumes, the organs are plastic, and the blood is styrofoam packing peanuts. It’s obviously beyond ludicrous, but Cheslik and Tews are so committed to their absurdist vision that it all becomes endearing. Hundreds of Beavers is likely best experienced with a raucous crowd, alcohol and other intoxicants optional (but recommended). Come for the unique craft, stay for the strangely touching ending, as pure a distillation of Conrad’s ”hero’s journey” as you’ll ever find. It’s a sui generis experience, that’s for sure.
DIRECTOR: Mike Cheslik; CAST: Ryland Brickson Cole Tews, Olivia Graves, Wes Tank; DISTRIBUTOR: SRH; IN THEATERS: January 26; RUNTIME: 1 hr. 48 min.
Originally published as part of Fantasia Fest 2023 — Dispatch 4.