Hundreds of Beavers

I can’t think of anyone in the obvious target audience for Hundreds of Beavers, but I also can’t think of anyone who I don’t think would be impressed, amused and at least a little awed by its weird, wild ambition.

The film, which just played the Fantasia Film Festival and has been picked up for international distribution by Raven Banner, is kind of a live-action cartoon — shot in black and white, with no dialogue — about a frostbit fur trapper, struggling to survive and maybe find love, in an unforgiving winter wonderland, bedeviled by wily critters played by people in animal costumes. No review could possibly do it justice, so please, just watch the trailer:

The trailer for Hundreds of Beavers

Hundreds of Beavers wears its influences on its furry sleeves, from Benny Hill to Tex Avery’s Bugs Bunny and Woody Woodpecker and other Looney Tunes cartoons. We follow the trapper, played by co-writer Ryland Brickson Cole Tews, as he is forced to say goodbye to happy days of swilling applejack — a highly alcoholic, frothy beverage — and instead contend for survival by capturing beavers. There’s no double entendre in the title, though the film has many other sly dirty jokes — just part of its wild but charmingly sincere internal logic.

Like Elmer Fudd, Yosemite Sam and everyone else in a cartoon who dares do battle with a rodent, our hero — or is he an antihero? — is foiled at almost (but not quite!) every turn. We soon get used to the idea that if there’s any opportunity for him to fail, he will. In one of the darkest, silliest jokes, he achieves one of his only few early successes as an unintentional result of self-harm.

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Tews and the film’s director and co-writer, Mike Cheslik, started making films together in high school in Milwaukee, and shot Hundreds of Beavers in subzero temperatures in the snows of Wisconsin and Michigan, in 12 weeks of shooting over four years. The film has over 1,500 effects shots, yet the filmmakers very impressively make everything look effortless.

It pulls you into its vividly imaginative world, where behind every tree lurks zaniness or melancholy, and your guesses about which it will be are almost always wrong. It’s their second feature after the the similarly bizarre and inventive Lake Michigan Monster.

Hundreds of Beavers reinvents many wonderfully dumb rules of old cartoons — for example, male animals can be seduced by female copies of themselves, built of snow and affixed with human-seeming bosoms — but also acknowledges modern realities. Every time the trapper does the wolf whistle that that unsavory cartoon predators of yesteryear used to express sexual interest, he is punished by a woodpecker repeatedly conking him in the head.

If I have to find fault with anything about Hundreds of Beavers, it’s that those short Tex Avery cartoons have trained me and everyone who grew up with them to absorb these kinds of antics in short doses. At an hour and 48 minutes, it feels a little long. Then again, Tews and Cheslik have pretty much cornered the market on the completely unique thing they do, so maybe they deserve every minute. And maybe people will appreciate the runtime more if they happen to be deep in some applejack.

Hundreds of Beavers is now making the festival rounds.