[Fantasia 2023 Review] HUNDREDS OF BEAVERS

This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, HUNDREDS OF BEAVERS being covered here wouldn’t exist.

Earlier this year, I watched Charlie Chaplin’s The Circus for the first time and remember thinking to myself that silent film-inspired physical comedy should make a comeback, if for no other reason than it makes me happy. Enter Mike Cheslik’s HUNDREDS OF BEAVERS, which pays homage to the silent era in a way that only the team behind Lake Michigan Monster could have possibly dreamt up.

With Lake Michigan Monster, filmmaker Ryland Brickson Cole Tews gifted audiences with an admirably quirky nod to classic monster movies, in which he starred as an eccentric captain tracking down a legendary sea creature. Tews returns as the lead in HUNDREDS OF BEAVERS, this time as an applejack salesman-turned-fur trapper in 19th-century North America. After his apple orchard is destroyed, he embarks on a journey to reclaim his glory by catching beavers (hundreds of them, precisely) in a harsh snowy landscape. This sets the stage for one of the most inventive, imaginative comedies in recent memory.

HUNDREDS OF BEAVERS is as indebted to the golden age of American animation as it is to the silent era. It’s a simple tale of man against nature blown up to an epic scale, propelled forward by a dizzying sense of cartoon logic and motion. From its brilliant opening animated sequence to its thrilling finale, Cheslik and the team string together a series of gags and setpieces that grow more elaborate (and hysterical) in size. At the start, our plucky fur trapper is simply trying to survive against the elements, so his methods of catching animals are more direct. One scene early in the film involves him rolling a snowball down a hill in an attempt to knock down rabbits like bowling pins. As he grows more skilled at his trade, his arsenal of tools and traps increases in complexity and absurdity.

As established, the woodlands are populated by a host of both humans and animals. Animals such as beavers, rabbits, dogs, and wolves are played by actors in costume, which contributes greatly to the surreal humor and storytelling. Smaller creatures such as fish, birds, and insects appear to be hand-stitched puppets. These little details perfectly exemplify the lovingly-crafted world that the film’s creators have worked tirelessly to bring to the big screen. It’s a fantastic use of resources that lends itself to a wonderfully distinct aesthetic.

There’s practically no dialogue, but the characters are still quite vocally expressive (such as groaning, sighing, crying, and laughing). The flow relies heavily on the physicality of the performers, with each of them committing to the bit tenfold. It’s apparent that the cast and crew have a strong reverence for early cartoons, but what especially impressed me is how the physics-defying antics exist as rules within the film’s universe. The cartoon logic advances the plot, with jokes returning throughout in a tangible form. A few examples include Looney Tunes-style holes in the ground that lead to other areas on the map and a woodpecker that attacks at the sound of a whistle.

HUNDREDS OF BEAVERS stretches a clean story arc to just under 2 hours, but it’s difficult to care when we’re being treated to memorable moments of wonder and hilarity in near-rapid succession. Physical comedy is difficult to pull off, no matter the medium, but it’s the complete package surrounding that humor that elevates this as something truly special. Between the black and white visuals that make smart use of locations and green screen along with a stellar score and audio design, all of the formal elements work together to achieve maximum comedic effect. These folks have simply crushed it in just about every department imaginable.

As far as I’m concerned, HUNDREDS OF BEAVERS is the kind of inspired, passionate filmmaking that genre film festivals exist for. Prepared to be in awe.

HUNDREDS OF BEAVERS makes its Canadian premiere at Fantasia Film Festival.

Tom Milligan
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