Monday, January 14, 2013

DVD Review: Cane Toads: An Unnatural History

I realize that of the audience I have attracted with this blog, most people wouldn't even realize that there was a movie about cane toads, let alone have been tempted to watch it. But I saw the first few minutes of this in film school years ago and I've been meaning to finish it ever since.

The trick was that it was actually a really hard movie to find there for a little while. I had to wait for Netflix to finally get a copy of it, which actually took years. But it is available now, especially because now there's a sequel, Cane Toads: The Conquest.

The basic story is one you may have heard of before: in an effort to control the can grub that has been destroying sugar cane crops in Australia, scientists introduced the cane toad. Except, spoiler alert, the cane toad doesn't actually eat the cane grub, and they're very good at reproducing and harming native wildlife.

Basically, the introduction of the cane toad to Australia was an unmitigated disaster for everybody except the cane toad. And apparently the handful of people that love them, because the film actually manages to present multiple sides of the issue by introducing people who keep the toads as pets and consider them friends.

The documentary is actually quite short, only 47 minutes. Which is as it should be, I actually can't imagine the film keeping it's interest up for longer than that. The topic is interesting but only so much. The filmmakers do a great job with making the topic visual, especially by using low angles and shots that personify the toads. It would have been easy to make the film entirely about how the cane toads are a menace and a threat, but they do manage to make you wonder if the toads themselves are to blame and deserve to be punished and killed.

I'm certain many of the people seen in the film would have a problem with that takeaway. Because the filmmakers also make sure to talk to a number of scientists who easily prove what a destructive problem they are ecologically. The only problem that I have in the end is that nobody seems to be proposing any usable solutions. Running over every toad you see with your car isn't really going to get you anywhere in the long run.

The subject matter is interesting, and the interviews are well done. The film suffers a bit from feeling very dated, with low quality technology of the time being used to make it. Even the cover you see for it at the top of this post makes it seem older than it is. It feels very much like a nature film from the 1980's, like something that most of us would have watched in school at some point. I can only imagine that people who are genuinely interested in the topic or who really enjoy nature documentaries would want to take the time to watch it.

It is a good film, for where and when it was made. It has some inventive techniques and while it's no surprise it was the director's first film, it does show a lot of promise and make me want to check out more things that he has made. But it isn't something that I think the average American will really be invested in or want to seek out.