Film, Film Review

REVIEW: Hundreds of Beavers (2022) dir. Mike Cheslik

Ahhhh! Wilderness!


Hundreds of Beavers is one of those movies that makes me feel a little silly to be a critic. This is not because “low” comedy is beneath critical thought, of course; just look at the hundreds of thousands of words spilled over Jerry Lewis in Cahiers du Cinema alone. But Hundreds of Beavers is a special case: a film whose ample smart-stupid pleasures are so evident at even a casual glance that any amount of intellectual pontificating seems beside the point. This is a movie called Hundreds of Beavers, a mostly silent slapstick throwback in which the majority of the cast wear oversized cartoon animal mascot costumes, and in which the hero spends much of the running time getting hit in the nuts. To quote Barton Fink, “What, do you need a road map?”

On the other hand, I suppose there is a chance that you, savvy moviegoer that you are, might be under the impression that you’re too sophisticated to spend an hour and a half watching people in fursuits act out elaborate, Wile E. Coyotean pratfalls. So allow me to use my platform to convince you that, no, you’re probably not. Hundreds of Beavers is one of the most endearingly original comedies to come down the pipe in some time– and, in its own way, one of the most ambitious.

“Plot” is, by design, a strong word in relation to Hundreds of Beavers; there is a story, more or less, but it largely serves as a framework for the film’s arsenal of sight gags. Our hero is one Jean Kayak (played by Ryland Brickland Cole Tews, who also co-wrote and produced with director Mike Cheslik), a dimwitted mountain man using his limited faculties to devise traps to catch woodland critters (who, again, are all played by humans, sauntering around upright in ridiculous animal costumes). More or less by accident, Kayak eventually turns pro, selling animal pelts (read: empty costumes) to a local trader in hopes of wooing his furrier daughter. But the natural enemy of the fur trapper is, of course, the wily and industrious beaver, a community of whom have been building an elaborate, fortress-like dam in the background for most of the movie. Will Jean Kayak succeed in accumulating enough beaver pelts to win his lady love, or will he end up hoisted on one of his own Rube Goldberg-like snares?

Like many of the rambunctious arts from which it clearly draws inspiration– punk, dada, claymation, Jackass– much of the joy of Hundreds of Beavers is in its sense of “I could do that!” With its shaggy, DIY aesthetic and good-natured sense of humor, it’s the sort of film one can imagine a group of friends concocting over a case of beer in the rec room and shooting on weekends. But, like the best examples of the forms listed above, there is a deceptive layer of, if not sophistication, than at least uncommon invention. Anyone can put on a silly raccoon costume, for example, but it takes a mad sort of genius to then show the “raccoon” being skinned and cleaned, individually removing a series of hand-crocheted internal organs. The jokes here are uniformly silly, but it’s clear that a great deal of thought and craft went into them, and in this sort of comedy that makes all the difference in the world.

There are also a lot of them. I didn’t have a timer handy, but I’d wager there’s at least one gag every two or three seconds; it is possible that the film does not contain a single shot not intended to make the viewer chuckle. This, too, is a smart approach, because even when a joke falls flat (as some inevitably do) you don’t have to wait much more than a fraction of a second to get another chance. A number of jokes develop into running gags which become funnier with each iteration, such as Kayak’s increasingly nonsensical hunger-induced fantasies: a rabbit dissolves into a gigantic drumstick, a raccoon becomes a slice of pepperoni pizza, a school of fish somehow translate into soft-serve ice cream cones. Like Mel Brooks and the classic comedies of the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker team, there is a refreshingly guileless anything-for-a-laugh ethic to Cheslik and Tews’ approach; even if you start out resisting it, there’s a good chance they’ll wear you down and get a chortle out of you before too long.

The most obvious comic influences on display here are classic cartoons and silent film (appropriately, there is a lot of Dudley Do-Right in Jean Kayak, who was himself a classic cartoon parody of a silent film hero). As I was watching Hundreds of Beavers, however, I found myself thinking of a more unlikely source: video games. There are a handful of direct references to gaming iconography in the mix– consider the jaunty organ music which plays every time Kayak approaches a merchant, or the animated map as he travels from one location to another– but the influence informs the very structure of the film: as in a video game, Jean Kayak builds an inventory, accepts a series of escalating quests, and solves problems by combining resources in increasingly outlandish ways (this, combined with the film’s cockeyed sense of humor, leads me to believe that Chesik and Tews played a lot of Monkey Island growing up). Hundreds of Beavers captures the fun of playing a good video game better than any actual video game adaptation I’ve ever seen.

Yes, but is it art? That, of course, is in the eye of the beholder, and in the beholder’s tolerance for watching a simpleton getting hit over and over and over (I’m reminded of Homer Simpson’s reaction to Hans Moleman’s cinematic opus Man Getting Hit by Football; Homer would love this one). To be sure, a little of this madness goes a long way, and at 100 minutes Beavers does risk wearing out its welcome; Cheslik might have taken a cue from Quentin Dupieux, whose similarly nutty films rarely crack 80. But it’s hard to begrudge a film this infectiously fun and packed with ideas, and it’s hard for me to truly wish there was less of it. Even now, I find myself smiling at some of the more inspired gags: the beaver Sherlock Holmes who occasionally pops up to investigate Kayak’s “crime scenes,” for example, or the sequence in which Kayak follows a rabbit’s tracks and finds evidence of what seems like an entire life cycle, including a wedding and a divorce. Hundreds of Beavers is a throwback to a sort of movie comedy which may never have truly existed in the first place, and will likely be beloved by good-natured dorks for years to come. 

Hundreds of Beavers
dir. Mike Cheslik
98 min.

Screens 3/1-3/7 @ Somerville Theatre – click here for showtimes and ticket info

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