You have never seen a film quite like Hundreds of Beavers. A silent black and white animation-mixed-with-live-action romantic adventure epic comedy shoot-’em-up of sorts, a pastiche of styles married to a video-game narrative with nods to Buster Keaton, Max Fleisher, Rube Goldberg, Wile E. Coyote, and Dudley Do Right and filtered through the aesthetics of Lotte Reinenger, Guy Madden, and Mel Brooks, Hundreds of Beavers is a psychedelic romp through the frigid plains of the Midwest and the strange genius of its creators, first-time feature director Mike Cheslik and his co-writer and lead actor Ryland Brickson Cole Tews.
Plot, you ask? There is one: Tews plays Jean Kayak, an applejack a little too fond of the cider. His propensity to overindulge causes a calamity that burns down his orchard and sets him on a new quest: to kill beavers and earn enough pelts to claim the hand of a merchant’s fair maiden. The plot, though, is really just an excuse to pit Jean against his mortal enemies, the hundreds of beavers (and scores of rabbits) who haunt him like torturous avengers.
To describe, even briefly, the plot of Hundreds of Beavers is to do this wildly inventive indie film a massive injustice anyway. The film is shot by Quinn Hester in a beautifully grainy black and white, using a mix of live action, 2D stop-motion animations, and absurd practical effects—including hand-sewn beaver and rabbit costumes complete with Poly-fil-stuffed entrails!—numbering over 1500 in total, shot over the film’s four years of production. The aesthetic is borrowed from the silent era, with no dialogue and just a few title cards, and a brilliant, lively musical score from Chris Ryan.
Within that highly specific and stylized aesthetic, Hundreds of Beavers exudes pure, manic joy. Kayak may be a fool, a drunkard who costs himself, through no one’s fault but his own, his means of earning a living, but he’s a charming and roguish one, and in the film’s first half it’s a delight to see his beaver-trapping schemes blow up in his own face. He’s Wile E. Coyote to the beavers’ (and rabbits’) Road Runner, a dupe whose plans leave him again and again hoisted by his own petard in increasingly side-splitting ways. Poor Jean gets his ears pecked and pecker knocked more than once.
The hero is intrepid, though, and Tews plays the role gamely, his big bushy beard and bulging eyes making him seem like he was born to play this character. (I don’t know if there is great demand for drunken applejack beaver trapper roles these days, but Tews’ talents seem likely to transcend the goofy genius here.) After Jean collects a kill or two, he sells their pelts to a tobacco-spitting, cockeyed-squinting merchant (Doug Mancheski), whose poor aim at the spittoon is matched only by the beauty of his eligible furrier daughter (Olivia Graves), a clever flirt who catches Jean’s attention. The merchant offers up a menu of increasingly precious beaver-killing weapons and traps in exchange for pelts, and the big prize is the ring that will win the daughter’s hand in marriage.
To achieve his goal, though, Jean will have to kill and deliver hundreds of beavers. And there the film delivers, each kill and each foiled attempt its own bit of zany comic triumph. You never knew there were so many beavers to kill and so many ways to kill them—or so many ways to fail, gloriously, at killing them. At nearly two hours, there’s just the slightest lull before the narrative reaches full steam with a pair of wildly wacky chases and final showdowns, but throughout Hundreds of Beavers the laughs (and kills) come a mile a minute. Tews and Cheslik make every moment a delight with visual puns, camera sleight-of-hand, and pure wintry spectacle.
Having met and started working together in high school in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Tews and Cheslik earlier made the equally goofy Lake Michigan Monster, a festival favorite, in 2019. Hundreds of Beavers is their first full-length feature and it has to be seen to be believed. Making the film can’t have been easy: it took them over four years to bring it to fruition, many of their scenes shot in subzero temperatures (and Tews shirtless in some!) and the film finally completed with Kickstarter funding.
What they’ve done with their labor, though, is nothing short of spectacular, a wacky world built in pure cinema, filtering a manic comic genius through a silent-cinema aesthetic to create something blissfully sui generis, a Midwestern miracle of independent movie-making. Inspired, inventive, and funny AF, Hundreds of Beavers will split your side like a log with a sharp axe on a crisp, cold winter’s day.
Hundreds of Beavers begins its Great Lakes Roadshow with screenings through January and February, beginning in Minneapolis, MN on January 26 at the Showplace Icon Theater. For a complete list of screenings, visit https://hundredsofbeavers.com/#watch.