Secreting toxic ooze and dripping slime, 1.5 billion determined cane toads are hopping across Australia. Their quest? To ingest every bug, poison every dog, and piss off every Aussie they encounter along the way.
“Cane Toads: The Conquest” is a clever, giggle-inducing sequel to 1988’s classic nature doc, “Cane Toads: An Unnatural History.” Filmmaker Mark Lewis capitalizes on his subject’s inherently ridiculous appearance. Equal parts malevolent and cartoonish, these adaptable, unwelcome visitors appear oddly stoic.
Still…yuck. Their eyes bulge, Marty Feldman-like, while a throbbing sack inflates beneath each tiny toad chin. Inflating, deflating. Inflating, deflating. The whole irresistible package lunges into your lap, thanks to vivid 3-D technology. Pink tongues flutter in front of your repulsed face. Protruding, brown-green warts quiver like jell-o, seemingly within touching distance. Mucoid secretions shoot into your averted eyes like popped pimples.
Congregated beneath a porch-mounted electric bug zapper, a horde of hungry toads close in on tazered insects. Soon, the huddled amphibious masses are snatching and devouring each hapless victim with the Terminator’s cruel efficiency. Later, they leave a family mutt poisoned and comatose in the local vet’s ER room. Ruthless.
“The Conquest” gets a lots of mileage from these amusing visual scenarios, but Lewis also has an unlikely history lesson to tell. After a scourge of beetles decimated Australia’s sugar cane crop, 102 cane toads were imported and unleashed onto the fields. The intent was to eradicate these economy-crippling, cane-eating pests. The result, however, was a complete and utter failure that permanently changed the Down Under landscape. The beetle plague continued unabated. Meanwhile, the newly-introduced toads, including females capable of producing 50,000 eggs in a clutch, ran alarmingly rampant.
“Cane Toads: The Conquest” is packed with talking-head scientists, environmentalists, and Aussie everymen, each with an amphibian tale to tell. For example, there’s the perplexed pet-owner whose stoner dog becomes strung out on toad secretions (through the licking of toad skin, some animals experience a LSD-style high. Ingesting too much juice, however, can lead to pet overdose and death).
My only gripe with “The Conquest” and its unique blend of bizarre fact and staged visual pizzazz (some scenarios are re-enacted for maximum effect) is its lack of one truly startling sequence. Perhaps a slithering stampede of these undulating immigrants, akin to the Christmas Island red crab march, would have pushed it over the top. With the exception of an early-film scare scene, however, there’s no truly mindblowing, headspinning, heart-in-throat moment to throw the slither factor into transcendent 3-D overdrive.
If you seek out “The Conquest” expecting a pseudo-horror sensory 3-D explosion, you’re swimming in the wrong frog pond. If you’re after a witty, superior documentary, you’ll be roused by its informative chronicle of a phenomenon that’s stranger than fiction.