As part of our coverage of the 48th annual Toronto International Film Festival, Meg Shields reviews the out-of-festival “Midnight Dankness” screening of the very violent and very funny silent-film send up ‘Hundreds of Beavers.’ Follow along with more coverage in our Toronto International Film Festival archives.
To misquote a kernel of wisdom from Mel Brooks: tragedy is a paper cut. Comedy is when you get beaten with an inch of your life by hundreds of guys dressed in beaver costumes.
Prat-falling from one meticulously choreographed gag to the next, Hundreds of Beavers tells the story of Jean Kayak (Ryland Brickson Cole Tews), a strapping, gloriously-bearded (and frequently drunk) applejack salesman. When pesky beavers put an end to Kayak’s cider business, the frontiersman is forced to sober up and retreat into the Midwest wilderness where he pivots to fur trapping. Will Kayak manage to outsmart his furry foes? Will he amass enough pelts to win the heart of the trader’s daughter? And what on god’s green earth is that ominous wooden fortress the beavers have been building?
Free from dialogue and riddled with long-abandoned flourishes of early 20th Century filmmaking, Hundreds of Beavers delivers on its premise and then some, delighting seasoned fans of silent-era slapstick while effortlessly indoctrinating the uninitiated without breaking a sweat. If Guy Maddin made a live-action Looney Tunes adaptation, this is probably what you’d get: a kitchen sink overflowing with metatext, physical comedy, and attention to bygone aesthetic details. Run, don’t walk: this is one of the must-see independent cinema curios of the 2020s.
Calling Hundreds of Beavers an “homage” or a “call-back” feels like a disservice. This isn’t some pale, cheeky imitator of Buster Keaton’s cartoon logic, but a worthy example of the sub-genre itself. The jokes are fast, furious, and damn funny (a momentum the film somehow manages to sustain for just under 110 minutes). Like all good slapstick gags, just about everything is secretly a set-up for future chicanery. A man being pecked on the forehead by a bird is objectively funny. That same man being pecked every time he whistles is hysterical. And that man realizing he can weaponize the whistling to use the bird like a tiny little feathered weapon is absolutely genius.
Brickson Cole Tews’ animated performance and ability to take a hit (or roll down a snowy cliff in a wooden box) shouldn’t go unsung. He makes a very physically demanding performance look easy, a minor miracle given the word “frostbite” popped up several times during the Q&A. Anyone put off by the film’s lack of dialogue has nothing to fear; you won’t miss words when you’ve got Brickson Cole Tews’ hoots, sighs, shrieks, and bellows for company.
Hundreds of Beavers marks director Mike Cheslik and actor/co-writer Brickson Cole Tews’ second feature-length outing. And heed my advice: if Hundreds of Beavers tickles your fancy, 2018’s Lake Michigan Monster (a mix of H.P Lovecraft and the MST3K bargain bin) is well worth seeking out. Who knows? This might be the early rumblings of an expanded Midwestern Monster Mash. You should probably get in on the ground floor.
Because Hundreds of Beavers is engaged with such a specific chapter of cinema history, the elephant in the room is obvious and dread-inducing to those aware of its impending presence. “Frontier” films, especially those comedies made during the Silent era, have a tendency to feature highly fictitious and dehumanizing depictions of indigenous folks. While I won’t give anything away, suffice to say that Hundreds of Beavers wastes no time staring its genre’s sins in the face. This may not be a serious movie. But it’s clear that Cheslik and company have a lot of respect and awareness about the trappings and tropes of the cinematic space they’re playing in. And thank god. Otherwise, for obvious reasons, none of this could work.
After the Midnight Dankness screening, a bucolic Cheslik took to the stage and gallantly declared that the death of silent cinema had been greatly exaggerated. A sincere (if not totally sober) chant for “100 more years” of silent film filled the theater. And while cynics might roll their eyes: I do think that Cheslik is on to something. Silent cinema — and more specifically silent slapstick comedies — really does feel like a perfect fit for modern audiences. Children of the internet are no strangers to joke-a-second paces and wild pivots from gag to gag. Safety Last! (1923) and YouTube compilations of guys falling off roofs while hanging Christmas lights share the same, goofy beating heart … and I think that’s beautiful.
Hundreds of Beavers might also be the first film to successfully connect the dots between video games and the creative problem-solving intrinsic to turn-of-the-century silent comedies. The trader (Doug Mancheski) is a worthy stand-in for any long-suffering video game merchant; the exchange rate for his wares is helpfully laid out to scale as our hero learns the rules of the world … and how to break them. The forest rewards creative problem-solving too … and is quick to punish missteps with equal enthusiasm. What I’m saying is: Nintendo, don’t waste your time making a Breath of the Wild movie. We’ve already got one. And it has beavers. Hundreds of them.
On paper, Hundreds of Beavers might seem too arcane and alienating to win over modern audiences. It delights me to say that that is simply not the case. A degree in early film history is not a prerequisite. And folks suspicious that a nearly two-hour film without any dialogue can hold their attention have nothing to fear. This is a tremendously silly, smart, and sublime gem of genre filmmaking. And it’s a damn good reminder that sometimes all you need to make a movie is some friends, a camera, and the willingness to freeze your toes off in a field.
Hundreds of Beavers is currently scheduled for release sometime in early 2024. Watch the film’s trailer here: