The last thing I expected to find when I arrived twenty minutes early to the first and only Chicago screening of a movie called Hundreds of Beavers was a line that wrapped around the block. Somehow, this obscure, shoestring-budget flick about a man chasing beavers (or, to be precise, people in beaver costumes) through the Wisconsin wilderness had amassed enough word-of-mouth hype to fill almost all 700 seats in Wrigleyville’s Music Box Theater. I ran into people I knew from campus that I wasn’t expecting to see, all of whom seemed to be there for precisely the same reason that I was: a friend told them that a new movie about beavers was playing for one night in Chicago and they just could not miss it.
Only after director Mike Cheslik had finished his lengthy drunken preamble, in which he thanked us all for letting the crew use our Wisconsin lake houses and described the movie as ‘just a video he put together on his computer,’ did the lights dim and the movie finally begin. What came next is difficult to put into words.
Let me begin by saying that I don’t remember the last time I laughed as hard and for as long as I did the night of Feb. 1. From such antiquated ingredients as the black-and-white slapstick of Charlie Chaplin and the cat-and-mouse games of the Looney Tunes era, Cheslik manages to distill something that can only be called a comedic masterpiece. With Hundreds of Beavers, Cheslik has turned back the clock of cinematic history to a time before everything got needlessly complicated.
I wasn’t the only one enthralled by Hundreds of Beavers that night — nearly every single time protagonist Jean Kayak (Ryland Brickson Cole Tews) added another beaver to his kill-count a roar of approval would ripple through the auditorium. In my experience, only Avengers: Endgame has succeeded in generating even a fraction of such audience enthusiasm. However, I don’t remember Robert Downey Jr. going out on stage at the end of the movie to suplex someone wearing a Thanos costume — like Tews did with one of the beaver mascots to a standing ovation.
You may be wondering why a group of 700 adults were so invested in Jean Kayak’s trials and tribulations. The answer, quite simply, is the ingenuity of the movie’s perverted, cartoonish, but remarkably consistent logic, and the unflagging pace with which each new logical twist is layered over the last.
Hundreds of Beavers begins with scenes of Jean Kayak’s debauchery as the proprietor of an orchard and applejack distillery. When the local beaver community destroys the distillery, Jean is buried in the rubble, and by the time he awakens the area has become a snowy, untamed wilderness. Alone in the cold, Jean Kayak must hunt beavers and other forest fauna to survive, and later to win the hand of a grumpy fur-trapper’s daughter. The plot unfolds much like a video game, with Jean learning to navigate the mechanics of his universe (the bea-verse, if you will) step by step, his tactics growing more sophisticated as he adapts to his new environment. Thanks to Cheslik’s constant toying with audience expectations and clever permutation of the movie’s ‘game-mechanics,’ this process is incredibly entertaining.
For instance: Jean discovers early on that when he whistles a certain way a woodpecker will invariably come to peck his face. This causes difficulties, as he is absolutely unable to resist whistling in that particular way when he finds food. By way of experiment, he discovers that the woodpecker is only capable of recognizing him by his raccoon hat, so if he removes the hat prior to whistling the woodpecker will simply find the hat and peck it. This nifty trick reappears unexpectedly later on, when Jean’s whistle causes the woodpecker to trigger an elaborate winch mechanism attached to his raccoon hat that pulls him to safety.
Another example that comes to mind is the fur-trapper’s spittoon: the fur-trapper repeatedly tries to spit into his spittoon, but always seems to miss. When the fur-trapper, in a fit of rage, launches a glob of spit at Jean’s face, Jean holds the spittoon up to his face and the spit-glob alters its trajectory to avoid landing in the spittoon.
Cheslik weaves in a tasteful assortment of cultural references, ranging from a clueless Sherlock and Watson in beaver get-up to a veteran beaver-hunter Santa Claus, along with more subtle nods to well-known tropes from Bugs Bunny cartoons. The effect is to take Hundreds of Beavers a step beyond its comedic forefathers, to build something new and better on the shoulders of their accomplishments.
The third-act revelation that the beavers have been trying to retrofit one of Jean’s surviving applejack barrels into a spacecraft is admittedly ridiculous, and the beavers’ motive for this climactic undertaking remains unclear, but it doesn’t really matter. Hundreds of Beavers doesn’t concern itself with moral arguments or hidden meanings, all it wants to do is keep you engaged and keep you laughing. And that’s enough for me.