Reporting from Park City, Utah — 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."
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 it's 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 toads 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 after 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 "Cane Toads' " 3-D elements that Lewis is proudest of takes some explaining. Dogs, it seems, have learned to tip over the toad 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."