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Animation Features Live Action Movies

Hundreds
of Beavers

Director – Mike Cheslik – 2022 – US – Cert. 12 – 108m

***1/2

A ruined drinks purveyor reduced to hunting beavers (played by actors in onesies) attempts to kill the amount required to buy a trader’s daughter’s hand in marriage – visually astonishing slapstick comedy is out in UK and Ireland cinemas on Tuesday, July 9th

Opening with what is essentially a music video extolling the bibulous virtues of the booming, farm home of Jean Kayak’s Acme Applejack, this shows a simplistic caricature of a prosperous nineteenth century business when the wooden supports of one of Kayak’s gigantic barrels of beverage is nibbled by a beaver causing it to roll down a hill on which it’s situated into his house at the bottom of the hill, causing it to burn down his hillside apple orchard.

Leaving aside such questions as, why store the huge barrel on top of a hill above your house? – the answer, so it can roll down a hill, catch fire and burn down your orchard to get the plot going, proving less than satisfactory – this leaves the ruined Jean Kayak (co-writer Ryland Brickson Cole Tews) homeless in midwinter and forced to survive by hunting animals.

In due course, he encounters both a North American Indian (Luis Rico) and a seasoned trapper (Wes Tank), the latter making money selling beavers to a local trader (Doug Mancheski) whose daughter (Olivia Graves), positioning herself at the side of her father’s house, makes eyes at Jean and encourages him to see more of her every time he returns to the trading station.

Jean works his way through the various amounts of beavers required to purchase items off the trader, as per the sign outside his house, culminating in the questionmarked quantity (ultimately revealed as hundreds of the creatures in a long billboard stretching over a vast area) required to obtain the girl’s hand in marriage.

Shot entirely in black and white and augmented with complex animation and video effects (of which the official stills give no indication), this features numerous animals – rabbits, raccoons and the eponymous beavers who do indeed number in their hundreds – who are basically people wearing onesie animal suits.

The film owes much to silent movies in general (all visuals, no spoken dialogue) and the silent period’s slapstick outings in particular (think: Buster Keaton), but being a contemporary movie with synchronised sound allows it to, for example, stage an entire song and dance routine to the song at the beginning. As well as allow actors to communicate using grunts and other non-verbal sounds.

Its other major source is video games like Super Mario Bros, exploiting variations on the simple left to right movement through environments, sometimes using different angles of an isometric grid (as, for instance, when Jean finds himself exposed to winds blowing on him alternately from in two different, fixed directions).

This furnishes director Cheslik the opportunity to deliver a non-stop sequence of visual gags, many of them involving the hapless Kayak’s attempts to hunt and trap the various (onesie clad actor) animals. There are also a plethora of romantic (and, at one point, overtly sexual) sight gags involving the trapper’s daughter as she gives our hero the come on.

The level of visual and (cheap) production design innovation is high, provided you recognise that the piece is going for silent movie slapstick and gags rather than any form of naturalistic realism. In this respect, the film slots into the tradition of the trick film, and reminded me specifically of the pioneering, illusionist, Czech filmmaker Karel Zeman (Journey to the Beginning of Time, 1955; The Invention for Destruction, 1958; The Fabulous Baron Munchausen, 1961).

Unlike Zeman’s more narrative-based, fantasy films, however, Hundreds of Beavers is essentially gag-based, with its visual inventiveness struggling to maintain audience interest over its feature length – I found myself flagging about half-way through, but it just keeps going. Many silent films, after all, were two- or three-reelers running 20 or 30 minutes, at which length this is not an issue, but the present day, commercially exhibited feature film format requires about 90 or so minutes, where such a gag-fuelled narrative may not, of itself, be quite enough.

The juvenile aspect of the humour also recalls Peter Jackson’s early films (Bad Taste, 1987; Meet the Feebles, 1989; Braindead, 1992), and the film possesses a similar charm, so perhaps in time Cheslik and co-writer Tews will similarly come up with greater things.

Still, the attempt at a wildly radical aesthetic at odds with the prevailing photographic naturalism which encompasses most live action production, including high-end special effects movies, lands it a refreshing edge. These two aspects – the stunning, innovative and different visuals on the one hand, the increasingly tedious, overly repetitive staging of gags on the other, compete with each other, meaning that some parts may enthral you as much as others may bore through repetition.

Hundreds of Beavers is out in cinemas in the UK and Ireland on Tuesday, July 9th.

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