Retrospectives #4: Cane Toads, An Unnatural History (1988)

Words by: Jonathon Davidson

In 1988, Australia made a comedy-horror documentary about the Cane Toad. It is absolutely amazing.
It’s a genre that needs a few moments of thought. This isn’t some tongue-in-cheek romp about the Australian biologist, it’s literally a genuine educational documentary, except with suspense and jokes. Centered around the cane toad.

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The entire film is on youtube, here:

It goes for 47 minutes, and also features a lot of shots taken from a low point-of-view, to facilitate a documentary about cane toads, from the point of view of a cane toad. Which was a deliberate creative influence throughout production. Sure, it’s not that out there – kids are gonna’ pay attention to a documentary with jokes in it rather than one without. That entire thought process is pretty much the same one behind thugnotes, a US program enacted within inner-city and generally poor areas to communicate classical literature to kids on the block.

The only problem is that Cane Toads: An Unnatural History does not have a demographic of marginalised, urban youth to speak to – only a bunch of bored kids in Queensland.

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Because the chronology of the Cane Toad throughout Australian history is a measurable process of increasing population, it was a deliberate choice to have the documentary mimic the alien/monster invasion horror movie format. Australian biologists working for royal commissions explain things face on to the camera, before the production cuts somewhere else entirely, leading the way to a few excellent unexpected punchlines.


Because of this strange facilitation of creativity coming in on top of what is meant to be an educational documentary, watching An Unnatural History is a bit of a psychedelic experience. A whole range of characters filter in through the grainy lens of late 80’s Aussie cinematography. The entire production has more pertinence to our strange counterparts on the east coast, creating a kind of alien-in-the-backyard viewing experience for us west coast viewers. Sort of like the cane toa – oh, shit. Well played.

Speaking of psychedelics, this documentary truly embraces the full scope of human knowledge on the cane toad, gathering the most respected sources together.

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There’s also a lot of scenes of cane toads fucking, which I was going to screenshot and include in this feature article, but I’m writing it in the library at university and I’m not about to start saving jpegs of frogs fucking for all to see. So I guess you’ll just have to watch it, which you should anyway, but it’s worth it to see the part which documents a cane toad trying to mate with a dead cane toad on a road. It’s really dark, and kind of weird that they included the segment at all, which is probably the peak scene of the movie really solidifying its status as an Aussie gem.

From origin tale to victim-in-the-shower scenes, from tough questions on empathy to the power of a cane toad’s forelegs, this documentary has it all. Since the time this movie was made, the cane toad population has increased substantially, to the point where their threat to WA is becoming a point of gaining concern, so it’s more relevant than ever to a WA audience, really.

It’s also a comedy-horror documentary about toads, which should be all anyone has to say in convincing you to watch this. 4 stars.