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Sundance 2010: Attack of the cane toads. In 3-D!

January 27, 2010 |  2:56 pm

Unless you're Australian, or have a long memory for short films, you've likely never heard of cane toads. But be prepared, they're coming at you. And in 3-D no less.

"Cane Toads: The Conquest" had its world premiere at Sundance on Tuesday night before an audience that roared with delight at the amphibians' antics. The reception fulfilled the expectations of filmmaker Mark Lewis, who called it "just like 'Avatar,' except with toads."

Toad An Australian with a lively and playful sense of humor, Lewis has been to Sundance before, with the irreverent "The Natural History of the Chicken." He's also dealt with the bizarre-looking toad before, in a droll 1988 short called "Cane Toads: An Unnatural History," which related how the toad had been imported to Australia in 1935 when "some bright spark" suggested it could control a beetle infestation. The problem was, nothing could control the toad.

With numbers estimated as high as 1.5 billion, the toad has now crossed one third of Australia and will inevitably cover the rest. "We've tried poison, fences, traps, biological controls, genetically modified organisms and spent huge amounts of money," Lewis reports. "We can send a man to the moon but we can't stop the toad."

The filmmaker, however, is not here to bury the toad but to give it some respect, to create "a little bit of a celebration." After all, Lewis says, "there's some kind of weird curiosity these things generate. If World War III started it might be on Page 26 of the newspaper, but if a big toad is found it's the main story on Page 1. So why is it that people jump up and down when baby seals are clubbed but have no hesitation about going out and knocking these things over the head? I think its sad."

A man who puts his actions where his words are, Lewis was kindness itself to the hundreds of toads that appear in his film, which mixes deadpan interviews, wacky reenactments and vivid nature footage.

"We mollycoddled them, we gave them fresh water, fresh food, even heaters," the director says. He even hired a toad whisperer who had to volunteer himself for the job because "you can't put an ad for that in the trades."

In addition to the toad whisperer, Lewis had to employ a stereographer after he decided to film the toad in 3-D. "I wanted to immerse the audience in the world of the toad" is how Lewis explains his decision, which caused an exhibition crisis once the film was accepted in 3-D-deprived Park City.

"We reached out to Dolby," Lewis says, "which arranged for two beautiful brand-new projectors, a technical expert who took a day and a half to install them, and 1,500 pairs of 3-D glasses." All for the toad.

One of the "Cane Toads" 3-D elements Lewis is proudest of takes some explaining. Dogs, it seems, have learned to tip the toad over and lick its stomach until it excretes a substance that has a hallucinogenic effect. So the film offers what Lewis calls "the first 3-D dog acid trip sequence in cinema history."

If "Cane Toads" has a message, its director says, it's that "people should just move on, relax and accept the toad. This is an animal that has so much to give."

-- Kenneth Turan

Photo from "Cane Toads: The Conquest" courtesy of the Sundance Film Festival

Comments () | Archives (9)

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This is just a simple illustration of people using film to show their artistic abilities and tastes. Some people would look at filming Cane toads as irrelevant; but others, such as the audience at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival would find the film to be an acceptable form of artistic expression. I think it was a nice touch for the director to make the film in 3D to enhance the impact. Very interesting, I would never think to watch a movie about Cane Toads but after reading this I might have to check it out!

Had to watch Cane Toads: An Unnatural History for one of my college classes and it was such an impressionable movie that when I went to Australia I had to part take in the Cane Toad Races. Definitely, would love to see this film.

I regret very much that I killed countless cane toads as a child. It was just part of the conditioning here. I even remember a popular TV naturalist, famed for picking up all manner of critters, explaining a few bits and pieces about them, then releasing them with a 'let's get this little fella back to the wife and kids'. Not so with cane toads. It was the only one. He said something like, 'Now I hate to say it, but this is one little fella I'm not going to let go' suggesting that he killed it. It was just part of our upbringing here...see a cane toad, kill it. Like a cockroach or a rat. Except, with cockroaches and rats you can literally distance yourself from the killing. Lay a trap or poison, that's that. With toads, we were very much involved.

I would love to see this movie too. I have been aware of cane toads since I visited Australia in the 90's. And I even own a copy of the first film by Mark Lewis "Cane Toads: An Unnatural History".

In case people didn't realize there is a small industry that uses cane toad skins to make products. While in Australia I purchased a cane toad coin purse made with one toad. You can see a picture of this and other cane toad products at toadshop.com.

Australia has all sorts of fabulous creatures, including
red bearded dragons! Unless you've been exposed to them,
either by friends of family, you don't realize what great
pets they can be! Dragons (Australian lizards) also have fun antics, and are SO entertaining to watch (and fun to hold.) The film, "Nim's Island" illustrated this, and it appears that "Cane Toads: The Conquest" will do the same for these little guys. I can't wait to see the film & learn more about them! Thanks, Kenneth Turan, for your inspiring story!

If they are trying to compare this to an epic film like Avatar, I'm expecting a lot from it. I've never heard of Cane Toads before so I'm very intrigued.

"just like Avatar, except with toads". Hilarious! Filmed in 3D 'cause he wanted to "immerse the audience in the world of the toad.". This is too funny! I will definitely have to check it out. I swear I can't stop laughing. What on earth would compel a filmmaker to educate us about toads of all things. I suspect there's genius at work here.

I just heard of the film. Before this, I had recently sent in about 30+ ideas to the Cane Toad Abatement Plan, waiting for feedback after June 16, 2010. People should still try submitting ideas. They will be neighbors in other areas.

Cane Toads are in USA http://nas.er.usgs.gov/queries/FactSheet.aspx?speciesID=48 .

I live in Canada. Kenneth Hilliam writekenneth@hotmail.com

Cant wait to see the wrestling part


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