Modern comedy movies are in a rut. 2023 signaled a mini-creative resurgence for the genre between Bottoms, Joy Ride, and Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret (not to mention the absurdist genius of mega-hit Barbie). However, the last six or seven years of American comedies have mostly been disposable fodder filmed indifferently and written without much more effort. Just think back to movies like Tag, Mike & Dave Need Wedding Dates, Daddy's Home, and countless others. Projects with unimaginative gags and camerawork cribbed from forgotten CBS sitcoms. A.A. Dowd's A.V. Club review for the lackluster Stuber astutely noted that "this is very much a 2019 studio comedy, which means that our heroes’ misadventure doubles as a self-help seminar." That pretty much sums up how modern comedy movies operate. Even something full of dog poop and boners like Strays feels obligated to dedicate lots of screentime to the lead canine explaining his character arc to his abusive owner in didactic terms.
Classic comedy movies that snuck up on you how much you were invested in the characters (like The Muppet Movie or The Princess Bride) and yukfests that are focused just on silly laughs (like Airplane! or any classic Mel Brooks comedy) are in short supply. American comedy movies are now seemingly required to follow the "Save the Cat" approach to filmmaking to a tee and be filmed with no sense of visual panache. Thank goodness then for modern great comedies like Bottoms, Barbie...and Hundreds of Beavers. Hailing from director Mike Cheslik and the realm of Northern Wisconsin, Hundreds of Beavers is the wacky homage to vintage Looney Tunes cartoons and silent cinema you never knew you needed in your life. While modern comedy movies like Anyone but You and Strays get bogged down in too much dialogue, Hundreds of Beavers is a masterful reminder of the power of pure visual comedy.
The set-up for Hundreds of Beavers concerns Jean Kayak (Ryland Brickson Cole Tews), a former Acme Applejack employee who finds himself stranded in a frozen wasteland. This being the 19th century, it's time for Kayak to hunt some animals for food and money. All the animals around Kayak (rabbits, wolves, raccoons, and, of course, beavers) are played by humans in animal suits, though our protagonist treats them like normal woodland critters. It's the classic Elmer Fudd vs. Bugs Bunny routine set in a snowy landscape, with Kayak taking on the Fudd role as he's constantly one-upped by the animals around him. A chance to earn the hand of The Furrier (Olivia Graves) in marriage spurs Kayak to step up his game as a fur trapper, especially when it comes to slaughtering the nearby beavers.
Written by Mike Cheslik and Ryland Brickson Cole Tews, the script for Hundreds of Beavers is nothing short of a miracle to behold. What at first seems like a simple translation of classic Warner Bros. cartoon dynamics into live-action keeps expanding its scope and imagination in such thrilling ways. The world Kayak inhabits has a very specific geography to it and no supporting character or animal (no matter how seemingly disposable) turns out to be superfluous. Always finding new ways to keep elements like a testy woodpecker or a cave of wolves in the story ensures Hundreds of Beavers never gets episodic in structure. Best of all, this storytelling approach inspires so many great gags. It's a delight to watch elements like Kayak's snow-people companions or the various traps our protagonist employs evolve throughout the feature. Just when you think you've seen this film do everything possible with human-sized rabbits, for instance, Hundreds of Beavers comes up with another great visual joke involving those critters.
The entire feature is also a testament to what miracles can happen with stripped-down character designs. This is a virtue I was reminded of when watching the 1914 short film Gertie the Dinosaur for the first time earlier this week. The very first animated character in the history of cinema, Gertie is adorable in her sparse design, with eyes and body language that leave so much to audience interpretation. Similarly, the intentionally simplistic animal costumes (with their permanently open eyes and occasionally discernible zippers) are so charming to watch. You can project so much into the broad body language of these animals and their faces, while any variations to their default appearance (like X's over the eyes of animals when they "die") immediately register as hysterical. Like Gertie the Dinosaur, Hundreds of Beavers shows that restraint can often be a gift, not an inhibition.
All the thought that's clearly gone into making sure these costumes work as vessels for inspired jokes speaks to how much effort informs the madcap silliness of Hundreds of Beavers. It's hard work making effective ludicrous comedy cinema, otherwise, we'd get yukfest's this good every week. Cheslik's direction of the performers, for example, demonstrates a staggeringly deep understanding of the nuances of both silent cinema acting and typical behavior of pre-1960s cartoon characters. The monochromatic color scheme of the feature is realized with terrific skill, while gags leaning on jokes going on juuuuust long enough (like a close-up shot of Kayak struggling "endlessly" to pick up a coin from a wooden surface) are expertly executed. The folks behind Hundreds of Beavers have taken a cue from vintage jokes like the rake gag on The Simpsons in understanding timing well enough to understand just when an elongated joke goes from annoying to hysterical.
There are tons of intricate details nestled within the chilly wittiness of Hundreds of Beavers that speak to what a hysterical accomplishment this movie is. However, the greatest compliment I can impart to this motion picture is that it left me cackling constantly. It's easy to become disillusioned with modern comedy movies when you watch something like You People, Vacation Friends, or Fool's Paradise. Such titles leave one wondering if this genre simply can't work anymore. These movies in the 2020s are simply destined to have garbage cinematography and scripts more interested in "proper" plot structure than jokes. But much like last year's Bottoms and Barbie, Hundreds of Beavers is a reminder that great comedy cinema can still exist. Watching Mike Cheslik and a supremely talented cast & crew execute this outlandish premise with so much care, precision, and humor is a glorious thing to behold. Modern comedy movies may be in a rut, but you wouldn't know it from watching the ingeniously ludicrous triumphs of Hundreds of Beavers.