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Film review: Cane Toads: An Unnatural History

Press material for "Cane Toads" describes this unorthodox documentary as something of a cross between Monty Python and National Geographic. That's accurate enough.

"Cane Toads" begins with a history of the amphibians in Northern Australia, which were brought in-country in 1935 from Hawaii to attack the problem of a grub that was destroying Australia's sugar cane crop. Unfortunately, because the grub became a beetle that could fly and the toads could not fly, the toads proved useless in the endeavor.

A decade later a chemical was developed to destroy the grub and saved the crops — but by that point the toad itself was becoming an incredible menace.

The film shows how the toad, which has a procreative life span of more than 16 years — during which time the females lay thousands of eggs as many as three times a year — obviously multiplies quite rapidly and has literally overrun the northern territory.

Filmmaker Mark Lewis interviews experts on the creatures along with local residents and finds them decidedly split on what should be done about the problem. Some elderly locals have adopted the toads as pets, as have some younger children. But others see the toads not only as pests, but also as quite dangerous since they are capable of unleashing a poisonous venom that kills animals native to the area.

The testimonials of these folks, along with Lewis' chronicling some of the toads' more eccentric habits, make for a highly entertaining, often hilarious film, though in the end it is rather chilling. Lewis uses re-creation techniques as well as talking heads, resulting in a suitable companion to join the horror movie "Frogs" on a double bill someday. (Love that "Jaws"-type music when the camera takes a toad's point of view.)

Because the movie is only 46 minutes long, however, the Blue Mouse is also showing three Australian short films to fill out the bill. These are by Jane Campion, and, according to press material, have all won international film festival awards.

Of the three, however, only one appealed to me: "Passionless Moments," a series of blackouts dealing with the odd passing thoughts that sometimes come to mind, such as why can we only focus on one thing at a time with our eyes? Or, do people become vegetarians because they flash on where meat comes from?

The other two films, both with R-rated elements ranging from nudity to profanity, are downbeat, mean-spirited and rather depressing: "Peel" deals with an unpleasant family that pulls over to the side of the road for unhappy confrontations (why would the filmmaker show the mother urinating in a field with a closeup camera shot of her bare buttocks?); "A Girl's Own Story" is set in the '60s and revolves around the suffering of several girls in a Catholic school, all with unhappy family lives.

"Cane Toads" is marvelous, but sitting through the three shorts first makes for a most unpleasant prelude.