Thursday, May 23, 2024

“HUNDREDS OF BEAVERS”

THE STORY – A drunken applejack salesman must go from zero to hero and become North America’s greatest fur trapper by defeating hundreds of beavers.

THE CAST – Ryland Brickson Cole Tews, Olivia Graves, Wes Tank, Doug Mancheski & Luis Rico

THE TEAM – Mike Cheslik (Director/Writer) & Ryland Brickson Cole Tews (Writer)

THE RUNNING TIME – 108 Minutes


The micro-budget independent film-to-word-of-mouth sleeper hit pipeline usually relies on a distributor and an intelligent marketing campaign. Given the overabundance of direct-to-streaming originals and video-on-demand titles from independent distributors, many films that might have had legs at the box office of the 1980s or 1990s (or even the early 2000s) barely get any traction among film fans these days, even with the internet now supposedly making it easier than ever for any film to find its audience. Enter “Hundreds of Beavers.” Premiering at Fantastic Fest in 2022, Mike Cheslik’s anarchic, nearly silent screwball comedy about a fur trapper in the 19th-century American wilderness starring dozens of extras in various mascot outfits has slowly gained a cult following after a year on the festival circuit, winning prizes at more than a dozen festivals in 2023. Following the sold-out crowds and critical praise, the film started a roadshow of independent art houses across the country and is finally arriving for all audiences on Amazon Prime Video. This is both a blessing and a curse, with the film easily available for everyone in the small subset of people who would seek out a black-and-white live-action cartoon in the style of 1920s-30s cinema but not available to be seen in a theater with an audience, the venue in which comedies always play best. So, it’s up to the audience to find and watch it in groups because the festival hype is real: “Hundreds of Beavers” is the genuine article, a real-life, honest-to-God original that builds on its absurd premise with an even more absurd style to create something entirely unlike anything else. And, it also happens to be the funniest film of the year, whatever year you saw it.

The premise, while absurd, is simple: Drunken Applejack salesman Jean Kayak (co-writer Ryland Brickson Cole Tews) loses everything and finds himself alone and destitute in a desolate wintry landscape. In order to survive and to win the hand of the one woman around for miles, he must become a master fur trapper. This means learning how to catch rabbits, fish, and, of course, the wiliest of all forest creatures: beavers. However, the style with which it’s presented makes that premise work. “Hundreds of Beavers” is filmed like the 1920s-30s silent and almost silent cinema, in high-contrast, grainy black-and-white with only some vocal exclamations that sound like ADR for dialogue. It does not faithfully recreate any specific film style, as it melds the general look and feel with the surreal logic of cartoons from that period, namely Looney Tunes. For instance, when Jean gets bonked on the head, animated stars dance around his head. Characters also pop in and out of holes like they’re on trampolines, accompanied by a popping sound. These recognizable stylistic choices may place the film in specific cinematic lineages. Still, the filmmakers have added a special twist to give the film its own unique flavor: Every single four-legged animal is played by humans in giant mascot costumes.

Half the fun of “Hundreds of Beavers” comes from not knowing what’s coming next, so those are as many specifics as you’ll get from this review. Just know that even though the film’s nearly two-hour runtime seems too long, it is so carefully plotted and ingeniously executed that it flies by. Indeed, the roughest part of the film to get through is the opening act. After a cheerful drinking song introduces us to Jean and his failed Applejack business, Cheslik gets right down to establishing the rules of the film’s world. This can get overwhelming, as the style is so far from anything we’re used to seeing. It takes some time to adjust to what’s going on, but the methodical nature of the film’s joke structure proves invaluable to situating the audience in the narrative. As Jean learns the rules of the forest and of being a fur trapper, so do we. What Jean may lack in survival skills, he more than makes up for in creativity. You can’t always tell what he’s setting things up for, but the reveal lands with a guffaw.

Slapstick comedy doesn’t tickle everyone’s funny bone, so not every gag in the film works. At points, the chaotic gag-a-minute structure even gets exhausting. This may work for cartoons, but those are rarely longer than 10 minutes, whereas this runs 100 minutes longer than that. Even still, the level of creativity on display in every frame is awe-inspiring, as is the commitment to the bit. “Hundreds of Beavers” wears its low budget like a badge of honor; when the animal costumes start to fall off the performers, there’s no attempt to hide it, nor is there any attempt to hide the film’s numerous, clever green screen effects. The film is littered with running gags that don’t just repeat but also build on each previous iteration in ways that demand the audience’s respect, even if they don’t find it funny.

In a world where the comedic landscape is nothing but lowest-common-denominator cultural references and self-indulgent improvisation, seeing something with such a singular personality consisting of so many well-thought-out gags is cause for celebration. That so many of them are variations on vaudeville gags older than anyone watching the film makes them even more impressive. Tews gives one of the more remarkable physical performances in recent memory, an impressive cross between Harold Lloyd’s physicality and Paul Bunyan’s stature. Watching him take so many hits to the head and full-body blows is like watching a masterclass in slapstick comedy. In fact, with its hundreds of sight gags, the film itself is a masterclass in slapstick comedy. Cheslik and crew leave no stone unturned in their hunt for laughter, and while Jean catches hundreds of beavers, “Hundreds of Beavers” itself catches thousands of laughs. This isn’t an easy sell by any means. Between the subject matter and the style, this film’s natural audience is microscopic. The final product, though, isn’t just the funniest, most unique film you’ll see all year; it’s also a testament to the power of creativity and the undying hilarity of a good pratfall.

THE RECAP

THE GOOD - A genuine original, this wacky, nearly-silent slapstick adventure pays hilarious homage to film styles past with a DIY aesthetic that brings cartoon logic to live action with relentless creativity and an abundance of laughs.

THE BAD - It takes a while to adjust to what the film is doing. The target audience for something this esoteric is admittedly tiny.

THE OSCAR PROSPECTS - None

THE FINAL SCORE - 9/10

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Dan Bayer
Dan Bayer
Performer since birth, tap dancer since the age of 10. Life-long book, film and theatre lover.

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<b>THE GOOD - </b>A genuine original, this wacky, nearly-silent slapstick adventure pays hilarious homage to film styles past with a DIY aesthetic that brings cartoon logic to live action with relentless creativity and an abundance of laughs.<br><br> <b>THE BAD - </b>It takes a while to adjust to what the film is doing. The target audience for something this esoteric is admittedly tiny.<br><br> <b>THE OSCAR PROSPECTS - </b>None<br><br> <b>THE FINAL SCORE - </b>9/10<br><br>"HUNDREDS OF BEAVERS"