Hundreds Of Beavers


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Hundreds Of Beavers
"What’s remarkable is that director Mike Cheslik manages to sustain this for so long." | Photo: Fantasia International Film Festival

Some films, even whilst they enjoy box office success, don’t really move anyone. Some attract equal measures of love and hate. Others create a division between viewers who adore them and viewers who are just confused, or not even sure if what they just watched was a film. 2018’s Lake Michigan Monster falls firmly into the latter camp. Now its writing team is back with the only slightly less peculiar Hundreds Of Beavers, which also does exactly what it says on the tin but in ways you’re unlikely to be prepared for.

The star of the show, once again, is Ryland Brickson Cole Tews, who no longer has mascara on his eyebrows but otherwise looks much the same, and just as much at sea. He plays a late 18th Century Canadian whose life has fallen into ruin as a consequence of his abiding passion for Acme Applejack cider. Now he is alone in snow-covered hills and he desperately needs to find food. At first he tries hunting rabbits, without much success, and manages to lose most of his clothes in the process. Then he learns that there is a fortune to be made from killing and selling beavers for their fur. He also gets into a position where he needs a fortune, because he falls for a merchant’s daughter who makes him a warm fur coat, but he has no hope of marrying her without bringing her father a significant prize.

Shot in black and white and using minimal props, this film has been compared to a Tex Avery cartoon, and it’s easy to see why. The rabbits and beavers (and later, other animals) are played by humans in large furry suits, whose eyes turn into crosses when they die. They’re clever and mischievous and our hero suffers extensive violence at their paws, as well as injuring himself repeatedly when his schemes go wrong. What’s remarkable is that director Mike Cheslik manages to sustain this for so long.

At 108 minutes, the film will undoubtedly tax some viewers’ staying power, but it’s persistently inventive and its clever use of running jokes will have others in stitches. Cheslik is an editor by trade and the way he has knitted all this together is at least as impressive as his direction. Credit must also go to Tews, not only for being a tremendously good sport where the stunts are concerned, but for what must have been an absolutely exhausting performance, delivered in deadpan style but no less endearing for it.

Wait a minute - should a film about massacring innocent furry animals be endearing? Here it gets quite clever. Many viewers will not be familiar with the horrors of a trade which saw North American beavers pushed to the brink of extinction just for the sake of making fashionable hats (really), but they will be by the time this film is over – thanks to a slide show put on by beavers themselves. We get to see their point of view clearly. This film didn’t screen at Fantasia 2023 just for its curiosity value – there is breathtaking existential horror just beneath the wacky surface.

Maintaining the style of an early 20th Century adventure film, Cheslik preserves the human hero’s curious innocence, implying that he’s just too dim to take in the real meaning of what he sees. It’s a difficult balancing act, maintaining audience sympathy, and it is deftly pulled off. The protagonist becomes the sympathetic monster of many an early cinematic tale, limited in its intelligence and motivated by simple things. The beavers are portrayed as civilised, sophisticated, living in a gigantic lodge whose complex internal workings remind one of Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times, or The Perils Of Penelope Pitstop. It is their very earnestness and decency which, in a strange way, encourages us to root for the monster, even as it generates sympathy for their real life counterparts.

In addition to this, the protagonist follows a classic hero’s journey, finding a mentor, going through arduous training, learning (painfully) to understand his environment, and acquiring allies by generally being pleasant and helpful to the other people he meets. Again, genuine details of colonial history are woven into the story, but they never take centre stage. As matters grow more serious, the protagonist grows more ambitious and the beavers grow determined to bring him to justice, Cheslik ups the ante with every aspect of the story and stunt design, attaining a level of silliness which one might not have thought possible even in light of the film’s very silly opening scenes.

Despite a few not-very-explicit naughty moments, there is nothing here that’s inappropriate for kids, which is good, because some of them will want to watch it on repeat. Adults are likely to find it harder going, not least because it demands constant close attention, but the sheer nerve which its creators show in taking an idea and running with it deserves to be celebrated. It is, in its own way, a spectacular and highly accomplished piece of work. It is also highly unlikely that you will see a dafter film this year.

Reviewed on: 29 Jul 2023
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In this 19th century, supernatural winter epic, a drunken applejack salesman must go from zero to hero and become North America's greatest fur trapper by defeating hundreds of beavers.

Director: Mike Cheslik

Writer: Mike Cheslik, Ryland Brickson Cole Tews

Starring: Ryland Brickson Cole Tews, Olivia Graves, Wes Tank, Doug Mancheski, Luis Rico, Jay Brown, Stephen Cervantes

Year: 2022

Runtime: 108 minutes

Country: US

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