I remember Mark Lewis’ 1988 film Cane Toads: An Unnatural History with great fondness. At the time it seemed punchy and warmly quirky, with Lewis choosing to film his eccentric interview subjects in a distinctly unusual style as they hugged, licked, squashed or smoked the ugly amphibians that were introduced into Australia in the 1930’s. Lewis has since made a career out of his approach to documentary filmmaking – turning his attention to dogs, rats, chickens, cats and cattle – but now, twenty two years after the original, he’s hopped full circle back to Queensland’s famous toad for an update.
Using much of the same background information, many of the same subjects and a wide-screen (and in some cinemas 3D) version of his melodramatic and comic style, Lewis explains the toad’s origins in South America, their arrival in Australia (102 toads were brought in a suitcase in 1935), and tracks their current epic march across Australia’s tropical north. They reached the Northern Territory border in 1994 and the Kimberley region of Western Australia in 2004. There are now an estimated 1.5 billion cane toads in Australia – which means there are plenty of toad stories to tell.
And it’s the personal stories that fascinate Lewis. Speaking direct to camera, and often reenacting their tale theatrically, are dog-lovers who have lost their favourite pet to the toad’s poison, politicians encouraging their voters to use spears, golf clubs and cricket bats to keep them at bay, and cane farmers who just hate the bloody things. But for every voice of distain, Lewis can produce an enigmatic toadophile: entrepreneurs who make hats and handbags out their warty skins, animal lovers who believe it’s cruel to club them to death with a five-iron, and scientists who cannot but marvel at the success of the species. The female cane toad can lay 40,000 eggs twice a year where native frogs manage a paltry 300 eggs once a year. Add the fact that Australian cane toads have evolved sturdier legs to travel farther and faster, and that their poison keeps native predators at bay, and you have all the ingredients necessary for a startling hopademic. But Lewis is rather non-committal about the environmental effects of the toad: he avoids turning the film into a polemic of any kind and, like many of his subjects, seems to have a fond admiration for the creatures.
I didn’t watch the 3D version of the film, but it has been warmly praised – Lewis avoiding the trap of using the technology as a gimmick. The 2D version is a mellow and entertaining affair – as much about Australians as it is about the toads we love or hate.