Cane Toads: The Conquest Review

Australia Day at The Digital Fix begins with Mark Lewis’s quirkily humorous documentary Cane Toads: The Conquest. Kaleidoscope’s Blu-ray contains both 2D and 3D versions.

In the 1930s, Queensland’s sugar cane industry faced a crisis, in the form of the cane grub which had a particular taste for their crop. What to do? Salvation was in hand in the form of Bufo marinus or the giant neotropical toad, better known as the cane toad, a native of Hawaii. In 1935, one hundred and two cane toads were imported into Australia in order to eradicate the menace of the cane grub. Unfortunately, the experiment was an utter failure, due mostly to the grubs being in the sugar cane flowers two metres above ground, too far for the toads to reach or climb. But meanwhile, the toads did what they do best, namely reproduce in great quantities. There are now over 1.5 billion cane toads in Australia, and they are migrating westwards. As of the making of this film, they have conquered Queensland and the Northern Territory and New South Wales are approaching the border to Western Australia.

In 1988, Mark Lewis made a 47-minute documentary, Cane Toads: An Unnatural History detailing the story of the cane toad in an often humorous manner. It has been widely shown in schools and despite its short length has had a cinema release and a standalone video release. (I saw it at the now-defunct Scala Cinema in London – I can’t remember now which film it partnered.) Twenty-two years later, Lewis made a follow-up, Cane Toads: The Conquest, also with a score by Martin Armiger.

The Conquest brings the story up to date, but otherwise covers much the same ground in many of the same methods as its predecessor, albeit at feature length in digital 3D, the first Australian film made in that format. There is no narration, though there are on-screen captions. Interviewees, scientists as well as residents of many of the towns and villages in the toads’ path, talk direct to camera. The humorous, slightly off-edge sensibility is still there, as you get dramatic reconstructions of a dog’s struggle for life after being poisoned by a toad it bit into, shot in the style of a television medical drama. You also get a canine-eye-view sequence of a dog tripping on toad venom. While car drivers delight in squashing toads under their wheels, others find less orthodox uses of the venom that extrudes from the toads’ flanks. One man uses dead toads to create toad dioramas. Another man mourns his dead pet toad, which he has had stuffed. And one town features a large bronze statue of a toad. And toads, toads and more toads, some of them CGIs seamlessly integrated with real ones. One leaps out of the screen just before the opening title card, giving the film its first 3D money shot. Another happens when a scientist squeezes a frog and it squirts its venom over the camera lens.

The result is reminiscent of documentaries made by Errol Morris and Werner Herzog – the latter is a fan of this film, and you can see why. What is, underneath the humour and quirkiness, a story of ecological screw-up is also an entertaining and educational hour and a half.

The Disc

Cane Toads: The Conquest is released on DVD and Blu-ray by Kaleidoscope. Reviewed here is the Region B Blu-ray, and affiliate links refer to that edition. For those for the DVD, go here. Rated PG by the BBFC in the cinema, Cane Toads: The Conquest is exempt from classification on disc.

This Blu-ray features both 2D and 3D versions, selectable from the main menu. As I am not 3D-enabled for home viewing, I will note this fact but the following comments are based on the 2D version.

The transfer is in the ratio of 1.78:1, opened up slightly from a theatrical ratio of 1.85:1. As Cane Toads: The Conquest was digitally-captured in HD only a couple of years ago, you’d expect something pretty good and that is what you get: a pristine image, sharp and colourful with strong blacks. Some black-and-white archive footage is inevitably grainy.

The soundtrack comes in two flavours, DTS-HD MA 5.1 and LPCM Surround (2.0). There is a lot of ambient usage on the soundtrack, plus a few showy directional effects such as a cropdusting plane flying overhead, and the subwoofer is suitably supportive. The LPCM track is slightly warmer and the DTS track slightly brighter, but there’s not a lot of difference between them. Unfortunately there are no hard-of-hearing subtitles.

The only extra is the theatrical trailer, which comes on like a monster movie, which in a sense is exactly what the film is.


Updated: Jan 26, 2013

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