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Review: An onslaught of retro-styled slapstick, 'Hundreds of Beavers' is mania from heaven

A soulful silliness pervades the rootin’, tootin’ live-action cartoon “Hundreds of Beavers” from Milwaukee filmmakers Mike Cheslik and Ryland Brickson Cole Tews, merry pranksters who deploy a gleefully inventive lo-fi madness to their gag-stuffed wilderness comedy. Pitting a lovestruck fur trapper against a bucktoothed horde, this underground festival hit is a feverish fit of creative buffoonery — you haven’t experienced anything remotely like it.

Even though its influences are prominent — classic two-reel silent shorts, vintage berserk animation, even something like "Caddyshack" — the artful insanity on display is very much its own. All is ingeniously filtered through a modern comic sensibility that revels in the addictive punch of video-game worlds and filter-layered TikToks. At first, you'll delight in the can-do energy of a crew of oddballs goofing around in subzero conditions. But considering the graphics work on display (there are more than 1500 effects shots), the takeaway is closer to astonishment: a teeming ambition to bring the absurdity as far as it can possibly go.

In other words, what’s on tap here is gonzo cinema moonshine, distilled from the corny legacy of every loopy genius from Buster Keaton and Tex Avery to Mel Brooks and George Miller. (What the hell, toss in Peter Jackson’s early ragtag gorefests, too.) And even though "Beavers" is feature-sized rather than Looney Tunes length, its woozy, giggly high of outlandish sight gags is remarkably sustained.

Styled as a retro, black-and-white photoplay with intertitles, sound effects, cranked-up speeds and jaunty music, “Hundreds of Beavers” ostensibly tells a story, but only insofar as a magician does, to simply contextualize your enjoyment of the tricks. When we meet impressively bearded Jean Kayak (the magnificently ridiculous Tews, who also co-wrote), he’s a successful maker of applejack, as an opening song informs us. But he also gets high on his own supply — cataclysmically so when a few overlooked beaver bites trigger the epic destruction of his operation.

Freezing, hungry and destitute, he proves about as successful as a famous hapless coyote at snaring game, until he is motivated by an attraction to the mischievous, knife-skilled daughter (Olivia Graves) of a grizzly furrier (Doug Mancheski). There's also the elaborate animal-catching ingenuity of a mountain man (Wes Tank) who inspires him. But to meet his destiny as a fur-trapping legend, Jean must contend with a wily beaver population — often spied in teams of two, carting logs toward a mysterious location — who harbor their own plans for survival-of-the-fittest domination. (Add James Bond supervillain compounds and Spielbergian action to the referential stew.)

The swirl of cartoon physics and comic melodrama is fantastical and otherworldly, as if survivalists in the wild had access to home-movie equipment to chart their increasing delirium. Also on this fractured fairy tale’s jampacked menu are human-sized animal costumes, arcade graphics, pratfalls, pole dancing, adorable maggot puppets, Rube Goldberg designs, expressionist sequences and even a bar brawl with rodents. At its center, the rubbery Tews gamely serves up a wide range of pre-sound clownery, from deadpan reactions to crazy-eyed exuberance.

Is it exhausting? Of course. Cheslik, Tews and their crafty conspirators are the kinds of movie-nerd obsessives who prefer a feast to a well-balanced diet. But it’s a truly jolly overload of laughter, awe and head-scratching. It’s as if they took their wintry location seriously — to stop moving would surely mean death. So in lieu of us not getting to see the soon-to-be-deleted “Coyote vs. Acme,” you’d do well to satisfy your craving for knockabout lunacy by checking out “Hundreds of Beavers,” as visionary as any indie in many a moon, and a dam site (ahem) more fun.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.