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Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Cane Toads: The Conquest

Well over a year since Avatar made it a must for blockbusters, 3D remains a controversial process. Often jacking up the ticket price for little visual reward, it’s constantly on the verge of reverting to the gimmick it was back in the 1950s. So what better way to champion the process and remind people of its full potential than to use it to film a whole bunch of cane toads on the march?

In this long awaited follow-up to his 1988 documentary Cane Toads: An Unnatural History, director Mark Lewis returns to give the much-reviled pest another chance to defend itself. Starting off with a brief history of how cane toads were introduced to Australia for no sensible reason – they were meant to eat a bug that attacked the tops of sugarcane and cane toads aren’t known for their climbing abilities – Lewis quickly gets to the real focus of his film: the effect cane toads have had on the people of northern Australia.

The environmental impact of cane toads is a serious matter. A travelling sideshow made up of dioramas using stuffed cane toads that are, amongst other things, playing AFL football, is not. And it’s a line this skilfully made and often very funny documentary walks with ease, even when telling the story of a man actually killed by a cane toad (not directly – he was electrocuted trying to spear one). Pets lick cane toads to get high, which is funny; a dog ate a toad and nearly died, which is somewhat less funny. But even there it’s the characters of the owners – the hen-pecked husband and the wife who loved her bossy dog – that add just that little bit extra to the story.

The 3D is never a cheap trick here. Instead, it’s used to bring viewers into the film – and the ground-level world of the slow-moving yet relentless cane toad. Lewis takes an episodic approach to the cane toad’s impact, using everything from maps and historical re-creations to talking heads and pets-eye views, but the film never feels disjointed thanks to Lewis’ clear point-of-view – one that’s more on the cane toads side than you might expect. We brought them here, he argues, so we need to figure out a way to deal with them. And if that involves wacking them with a golf club or running them over with a lawn mower, go for it!

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in The Big Issue #383)

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