Idiosyncratic Aussie documaker Mark Lewis returns to the well of his early career inspiration with “Cane Toads: The Conquest,” a 3D feature-length variation on the hourlong docu that put him on the map. But what a difference 22 years make: Whereas “Cane Toads: An Unnatural History” was a scabrously funny mock-horror film that suggested a nature-documentary collaboration between Monty Python and Luis Bunuel, the new effort feels overweeningly touch-feely and politically correct, with just dashes of humor. The 3D angle gives this an important leg up in the current marketplace, and the topic is sufficiently weird to entice young auds and even school groups.
The 1988 film, which attracted a lot of attention at the time and set Lewis on his path to making such other unusual animal docus as “Rat” and “The Natural History of the Chicken,” presented the cane toad nearly as a real-life version of marauding monsters from a bad ’50s sci-fier. Introduced into Australia in the ’30s from Puerto Rico and Hawaii to combat the sugar cane-devouring greyback cane beetle, the toads reproduced at such a rate that, within a few decades, they threatened, as the title of the new film suggests, to take over the country.
Lewis must again lay out all the essential background: how the toad never did much to eradicate the beetle, how its tremendous toxicity dissuades potential predators and how female toads produce thousands of eggs per year. From an original imported population of 102 toads 75 years ago, there are now an estimated 1.5 billion of the big buggers, which can weigh well over five pounds apiece, inhabiting an ever-increasing portion of the continent.
His earlier comic instincts surfacing at times, Lewis finds a backwater oddball who has put together a “Traveling Toad Show,” for which he arranged stuffed toads in diverse costumes and dramatic postures, to negligible effect. He locates a large sculpture of a toad in a small town, finds one couple willing to re-enact how their dog miraculous recovered from toad poisoning and another pair who like to skewer toads for fun and the public good.
But Lewis’ heart is no longer in this sort of malicious sport; when a painfully sincere, indulgent environmentalist opines as to how cane toads have rights, too, it’s clear that he’s speaking for the filmmaker as well. Not that Lewis’ good-hearted attitude toward all God’s children, even of the amphibian persuasion, is a bad thing; it’s just not as amusing or useful for cinematic purposes as his former, more irreverent attitude.
That said, newcomers will get a kick out of seeing the so-ugly-they’re-beautiful beasts emerging from the flora and fauna to relentlessly make their way across Queensland and on to Darwin and beyond. Instead of being alarmed, Lewis takes the new position of accepting having been conquered and adjusting to the new equilibrium, although at its core, the film stands as a cautionary tale about introducing new species into areas where they were not meant to live.
Some of the 3D setups of toads close to the camera are undeniably effective, but talking heads stand out from their backgrounds in ways that make them appear bizarrely disembodied. Other tech credits are fine.