Cane toads invade Sundance!
BY ROBERT W. WELKOS
PARK CITY, Utah–There was excitement in the air at Eccles Theater here Tuesday night when a new 3-D movie hit this upscale ski resort where thousands of filmmakers and the news media are gathered for the Sundance Film Festival.
No, the 3-D movie that has people talking isn’t “Avatar.”
It’s “Cane Toads: The Conquest.”
Or, as director Mark Lewis likes to joke: “Avatoad.”
“What a lucky strike of genius,” the personable Aussie chuckles, noting that he never dreamed his little 3-D documentary about the massive cane toad invasion of Australia would be debuting at Sundance at the very same time “Avatar,” shot in both 2-D and 3-D format, has become the world’s biggest blockbuster ever.
“I’m scared I’m going to get sued by James Cameron and Rupert Murdoch (who’s 20th Century Fox released ‘Avatar’),” Lewis joked. “They have a lot of money at the moment to sue.”
There was such anticipation in the air at the “Cane Toads” premiere, that when the theater darkened and an image of a cane toad came on the screen, people actually cheered. Then the cane toad jumped at the camera and everyone in the audience who were outfitted with 3-D glasses jumped in their seats and screamed. At that very moment, a cane toad star was born.
Lewis didn’t set out to make a 3-D movie because of “Avatar” or because of Hollywood’s current embrace of the 3-D format. He simply thought it would be a good way to tell a story from the toad’s point of view.
“The ‘Avatar’ juggernaut has certainly made an audience aware of 3-D,” he said. “It has enriched the cinema experience and certainly to come out with a film nearly a month after ‘Avatar’ has come out in 3-D–a good film like ‘Avatar’ and a good film like ‘Cane Toads’–is a very good opportunity.”
Lewis’s film is an update on a documentary he made in 1988 called “Cane Toads: An Unnatural History.”
“The idea (for a sequel) has been bubbling around in my head now for 20-odd years,” Lewis said. “I did make a film 25 years ago and ever since I made that film, (it) inspired so much more cane toad folklore … because the film made the audience somewhat aware of the toad. Since the first film, there has been a lot of stuff come out about the toad and, of course, it all gets sent to me. So, I’ve been building up this library, this archive, of stories and information for a long time. The interesting thing about the cane toad is that it’s not static.”
One of the central themes of the film is the cane toad’s journey through time and through the country. “The cane toad has remained essentially unchanged for millions of years,” Lewis said. “At the same time, we find out … that they wear their thumbs off of their front legs because they are aggressively traveling across the country.”
The cane toads were introduced to Australia in the 1930s to save sugar cane from beetles that were devouring the crops. But the experiment didn’t work and the cane toads, which have no natural predators or parasites in Australia to keep them in check, multiplied. The film states that from 102 imported toads, there are now an estimated 1.5 billion. Female cane toads lay 30,000 to 40,000 eggs twice a year and the toads are constantly on the hop looking for new places live and breed.
One of the great mysteries, Lewis observed, is why the cane toads so aggressively travel across Australia. “No one could answer it. Some people say they only move west. How it was explained to me was, we have this idea of territory, that we as humans have this idea of home. The cane toad doesn’t…. It’s not necessarily a territorial beast. It will keep traveling to find a more idyllic location or better sort or food or what have you.”
The film recounts the never-ending folly of humans trying to eradicate or stem the invasion of cane toads from their towns and villages in northern Australia. One group of volunteers captures the toads, places them in plastic bags, then gasses them and tosses the carcasses into mass graves to bury.
Fences have not worked, either.
“One of the reasons fences don’t work is that when you put up a fence in the outback, no one monitors that fence. So, the two things they found, if there was a flood or heavy rain, the fences might fall down and the toads would get through. The other thing, the fences also stopped the native fauna from traveling around as well. … A heron or a bird could pick up a strand of (cane toad) eggs on one side of the fence and drop it on the other side of the fence. The fences were ineffectual. The traps were ineffectual.”
The film is spiced with humor. One man named Kev actually stuffs the toads and dresses them in tiny clothes and puts them on display as part of Kev’s Traveling Toad Show.
“He used to gather toads–I guess there was nothing good on television that night–but I think he went out to his shed and he spent his time creating taxidermy toads, dressing them in tiny costumes that he hand made, and creating (scenes) based around some sort of ritual he imagined. I think the one I like most is the four-lane intersection car smash. He did one, too, which we didn’t illustrate, which is Australia’s convict history. He had all the toads in little striped outfits with picks and shovels digging up roads and things and guards….with hundreds of toads.
“When he had the toad show, at the same time he found this toad, a large toad, as one of his prime exhibits, Melrose became the wonder toad and Melrose became a toad he wanted to get into the Guinness Book of Records. So, he’d go out and capture live cockroaches, however one would, and come back and feed Melrose massive amounts of cockroaches, because they were Melrose’s favorite type of food, and in a quest to create the fattest, heaviest toad…what happened was Melrose became so fat so fast that Melrose could hardly move and he died of a heart attack.”
Lewis said it is a misconception that the toad is a predator. The toad has toxin on its skin called “bufotenine” which is used as a defense mechanism. If a dog comes along a grabs it, a little bit of the toxin can get in the dog’s mouth, it drops the toad, and the toad survives. But if the toxin gets inside a dog, or a crocodile, for that matter, it can kill them.
One of the funnier scenes in the movie is the story of Dobby the dog who likes to like the toads and get high. Lewis makes it appear that the dog is on an LSD trip. The Chinese believe that the toxin has great potential as a cure for cancer.
But there is no question that the cane toads are considered a pest by much of Australia. Lewis believes the media has fed the hysteria and chuckles at the folly of humans thinking they can stop the toads’ advance.
The film is seeking a distributor here at Sundance.