‘Hundreds of Beavers’ Review: A Singular Live-Action Cartoon of Inspired Slapstick

Those dismayed by the cancellation of the big-budget “Coyote vs. Acme” — a high-profile casualty of the recent Hollywood trend towards pulling the plug on near-completed projects — may find consolation and then some in “Hundreds of Beavers.” That is, if they become aware of it, of course. Chances are good that they will, eventually, as this DIY delight has begun self-distributing to North American theaters following a long tour on the regional festival circuit. It’s sure to develop a significant cult following with its unique mix of silent-era slapstick, animation elements, theme-park-style critter costumes, and general air of inspired absurdity.

Well, not entirely unique: Director Mike Cheslik and star Ryland Brickson Cole Tews previously collaborated (as co-writers, in addition to other hats worn) on 2018’s “Lake Michigan Monster,” a similarly nonsensical B&W comedy, albeit in a more Guy Maddin-esque pseudo-early-talkie vein, with a fantasy adventure gist in the vein of Jules Verne. But for all its enterprise, that 78-minute feature operated within a somewhat juvenile sphere of skit humor that soon palled. Rather miraculously, this new “fur-trapping photoplay” manages to sustain itself for a full half-hour longer, sans dialogue, relying on little more than a series of sight gags that might impress both Buster Keaton and Chuck Jones.

It begins with a bona fide production number telling the tale of Jean Kayak (Tews), a woodsy entrepreneur whose excessive love of his own inebriative applejack leads to the wholesale destruction of his orchards and brewery — much expedited by a plague of ravenous local beavers. This song (also written by the actor) is staged in a pleasing style of simple animation, with our lone live-action figure as much a human cartoon as Bruce Campbell in the original “Evil Dead” films.

Emerging in defeat from hibernation sometime later like Rip van Winkle, the hero must start anew as a man of the wilderness. His first task is avoiding starvation, which effort results in animal pelts he can trade for needed tools. It is a plus that the area merchant-trader (Wes Tank) has a furrier daughter (Olivia Graves) to whom Jean pitches woo on the sly. But it soon becomes clear that his real challenge is, once again, the beaver population — who, like the rabbits, wolves, raccoons and other mammals hereabouts, are all played by actors in full-size furry (or “mascot,” as the end credits put it) costumes designed by Casey Harris.

Those pesky pulp-chewers are an army unto themselves, one that’s hard to outsmart, and is quite capable of offensive as well as defensive tactics. Amidst this titanic struggle, the protagonist gains from the knowhow of two more experienced trappers (Doug Mancheski, Lu Rico), though they do not necessarily benefit from being drawn into his interspecies war.

Boasting a purported 1500+ “effects shots,” the film builds a singular comic universe out of the aforementioned elements, plus puppetry, miniatures, cartoonish props, and other practical as well as post-production devices. But for all that invention, the driving factor here is rubber-faced Tews’ physical clowning, as well as the precision with which DP Quinn Hester’s monochrome compositions and Cheslik’s astute editing milk every gag without belaboring it.

Such timing allows jokes both simple (i.e. falling in ice-holes) and elaborate (a Rube Goldbergian climax at the beavers’ highly automated HQ) to repeat in near-endless variations without growing repetitious, while rare misfiring bits are over in a trice. One assumes much of that success rate must also be due to Mike Wesolowski, whose credit as “gag man” has been seldom seen since the heyday of Hal Roach Studios. A big part of the fun is the soundtrack, which — with its combined foley effects, nonverbal exclamations, amusingly selected library music, and diverse original score by Chris Ryan — proves equal to the visual imagination on display.

Itself a sort of vast homage to comedy traditions past, “Hundreds of Beavers” will certainly recall for many viewers the Road Runner v. Coyote saga, as well as pre-talkie knockabout humor, frontier parody “Cannibal: The Musical,” pioneering screen fantasists Georges Melies and Karel Zeman, and so on. On paper, it would hardly be expected to remain funny for eight minutes, let alone 108. But this ingeniously home-made lark never runs out of steam.

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