Hundreds of Beavers: anarchic low-budget comedy updates silent slapstick for a video-game age

Combining lo-fi CGI, video game gags and the sadism of a Looney Tunes short, director Mike Cheslik’s repetitive but lovable comedy about a boozed-up Wisconsin fur trapper is a cult movie in the making.

Ryland Brickson Cole Tews as fur trapper Jean Kayak in Hundreds of Beavers (2022)

In his trademark hat and facial hair, our wordless hero moves mischievously through a Sisyphean loop of absurd obstacles, sidestepping pitfalls and performing feats of kinetic ingenuity – he is the Little Tramp, he is Super Mario, he is the fur trapper Jean Kayak (Ryland Brickson Cole Tews), protagonist of the spirited and inventive Hundreds of Beavers, which updates silent slapstick for a video-game age.

Across a bitter winter, he is on a quest to acquire the beaver pelts he trades for supplies from a tobacco-spitting fur trader (whose daughter, a gamine Princess Peach, awaits as the ultimate prize). Rather than rubber suits á la 1950s creature-features, the beaver costumes – worn by the filmmakers and a handful of collaborators, and digitally duplicated for crowd scenes – are mascot outfits sourced from a Chinese e-tailer, customised with extra-chompy buck teeth.

Conceived over beers by Tews and director Mike Cheslik, the film was shot over four years in northern Wisconsin, in wintry woods and in front of a tarp used as a lo-fi greenscreen, and finished by Cheslik in Adobe After Effects. 

Contraptions such as an alluringly plump snowwoman decoy and a spring-loaded snare trap are rendered in the herky-jerky stop-motion cutout aesthetic of Terry Gilliam’s Monty Python work, and informed by the zany, convoluted sadism of a Looney Tunes short. The black and white cinematography, with a digital grain filter to bridge the distance between raw practicals and cartoonish cgi, also fits the frozen-north setting: the occasional retro transition effect, and dialogue track of expressive cartoon-bubble mumbles, suggests, if not the snowbound Gold Rush setting of an early silent comedy, certainly a Guy Maddin–esque pastiche.

As Jean Kayak levels up his skills and confronts numberless mobs of Koopa Troopa–like beavers, the filmmakers betray their avowed debt to video games, even as sight gags explicitly reference Sherlock Jr. (1924) and Seven Chances (1925) (the online-savvy filmmakers have been open about their influences, giving an informative Reddit AMA and assembling a Letterboxd list of 100 influences). 

Promotion of this readymade cult film blended vaudeville and viral. Initially forgoing traditional distribution, Cheslik and Tews built word-of-mouth across a nationwide tour of one-night-only engagements marked by outrageous pageantry, such as a pre show wrasslin’ exhibition featuring Tews and co-conspirators clad in the movie’s beaver suits.

Without the excitement of a live event, the pace of the repetitive-by-design Beavers eventually dams up. But the excitement engendered by those screenings is not nothing: as audiences turn away from cinema and toward gaming, Cheslik and Tews have met them halfway, making a collective experience out of the phenomenon of watching someone else game, a midnight movie for an era of YouTube playthroughs and Twitch livestreams.

 ► Hundreds of Beavers is in cinemas now.