Presented in 3D, the cane toad migrates from the sugar crops of Northern
Queensland to the wilderness of the Northern Territory. Despite unprecedented scientific capabilities and unabated public
determination to halt the invasion, it seems nothing will stop its
march.

2.5
Toad king returns with Australian 3D first.

In 1987 Mark Lewis made Cane Toads. It was a big hit for a documentary, and it was, in its way, a bit controversial. Lewis’ movie was about the introduction and impact of a large toad, originally imported to Australia’s far North East from Hawaii half a century ago on the theory that it would eat the beetles that were feeding off the lucrative cane crop and thus helping to ruin it in the process. This experiment in eco-management backfired and in retrospect seemed deeply ill-advised. The toads were useless as a pest controller and in turn they became the pest! They bred like crazy and their numbers quickly grew to plague proportions.

Lewis engaged with this dry sounding subject on a deeply human level. His cast of interviewees were an engaging lot; some of them kept the toads as pets, some of them made a potent drug out of toad 'product" and some of them invented strange ways of killing them off.

Like David Caesar’s Bodywork and Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line, Lewis approached the documentary in a highly formal, heavily stylised way. And just like those filmmakers, Lewis was, I think, wrongly accused of sending up his subjects in a gutless 'look at how funny those Northern hicks are" kind of way.

It was also because Lewis would often have his characters talk straight into the camera like they were sitting for a still photo or a painter. Of course, for some this is not a flattering angle. Whatever, audiences had a tendency to laugh at the movie’s characters, which made some critics distinctly uncomfortable and they blamed the filmmaker.

What was true was that Lewis has a way of finding the strange and the weird in the everyday and instead of being repulsed by these people and their relationship with this big toad he was charmed.

The reason why I’ve dedicated so much word length in this review to Lewis’ earlier film is simply because his new film, Cane Toads: The Conquest, is pretty much a remake, except this time he’s decided to shoot in 3D. What’s true of Cane Toads in 1987 is true of Conquest. Still, the new film justifies itself in one clear respect in that it brings the story of the toad up to date and explains that the creature has migrated far from its original Australian home in Queensland to New South Wales and the Northern Territory and even the deserts of Western Australia, where it was thought it could never survive in such harsh conditions. This 'migration’ of the toad is obviously why Lewis went back to it, and for the record, he does see the film as something of a sequel albeit one 23 years in the making.

As for the 3D, this is a smart choice in terms of marketing since it may encourage some people to get out and see this in a cinema but I’m not at all sure whether its yield in terms of spectacle and impact is all that impressive. Lewis does stage some moments (shot in a studio) that playfully reference sci-fi and horror but essentially Conquest offers the same mix of narrative and approach as Cane Toads. This is a co-mingling of natural history, social and cultural anthropology and an exercise in cinematic style. Still, Conquest doesn’t feel like it’s nearly as much fun as its predecessor.

According to Lewis, the 3D meant the film could not be shot in verite style; the 'hero toads’ in the film were raised by the filmmakers and then 'wrangled’ to get the film’s countless and very impressive shots of them in natural environments, looking like something out of, well, Avatar. This gives the film’s aesthetic a 'stagey’ feel. It’s a bit like watching a really impressive instructional film in a museum. What Conquest doesn’t quite have is a fully human story; every time we feel like we’re getting to know someone we go back to the toads, which in a way is a pity since the ideology of Lewis’ film has an idealistic charm that carries with it a compelling and urgent plea. Lewis has said that the toad is no threat and indeed his new film has the same message as his hit: it’s important for politics and society to identify the real dangers to the environment. It’s as much a story of human resilience and tolerance as it is a yarn about a tough little toad.

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Credits

Details

PG
1 hour 24 min
In Cinemas 02 June 2011,
Tue, 11/01/2011 - 11

Genres