When The Crocodile Hunter debuted on the cable station Animal Planet in 1996, it quickly garnered an audience. While wildlife shows have been around forever, this one was different, featuring the enthusiastic Australian Steve Irwin as force of nature. It’s hard to turn away each week, as he harasses poisonous snakes, spiders, and of course, crocodiles, in order to show us just how hazardous they can be.
As Irwin whoops and hollers after his prey, his ever-patient wife Terri stays in the background, every now and then offering snippets of information about the eating habits, living conditions, and mating practices of the animals she and Steve encounter. Terri’s commentary is surely instructive, but she mostly serves as welcome counterpoint to Steve’s hyperactive persona.
Playing “themselves,” the Irwins adapt this basic formula for their first feature film, Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course: they’re tracking a crocodile in the Outback. Unlike the tv series, the movie includes a rudimentary fictional “plot.” Unbeknownst to the Irwins, the crocodile has swallowed a top secret U.S. satellite; when they find themselves being chased by two CIA agents (Lachy Hulme and Kenneth Ransom), they assume that they’re poachers and work ever harder to foil them.
Interwoven into these two stories is a subplot involving a rancher named Brozzie (Magda Szubanski), on a quest to hunt down and kill the crocodile that’s been feasting on her cattle (which turns out to be the same crocodile that Steve and Terri are trying to relocate). This subplot appears irrelevant to Steve and Terri’s efforts to rescue the satellite-eating crocodile, but maybe that is the point. After watching Steve battle not one, but two crocodiles, sift through lizard excrement, tangle with a bird eating spider, and narrowly miss being bitten by a poisonous snake, the other plots, not to mention a bunch of explosions and gunfire, are extraneous.
The film’s primary focus is, of course, Steve Irwin. In one telling moment, Steve holds a snake that has enough venom, he says, to “kill 100 blokes my size,” so that its head is level with his crotch. The choice to shoot this antic—especially when the snake snaps its jaw, attempting to strike at Irwin’s package—suggests that this is a guy with severe masculinity issues.
You have to wonder about a guy who goes out of his way to look for poisonous snakes, venomous bird-eating spiders, and sharp-toothed crocodiles, in order to wrestle them, poke at them with sticks, and pick them up and dangle them in the air. While his passion for wildlife appears sincere, he reveals a certain ambivalence on this point in his repeated reminders that the animals are “dangerous,” as well as his provocations of them, until they appear to prove his case: they do look dangerous.
Still, it’s near-endlessly entertaining to watch him handle them. His eyes get wide and he contorts his arms and legs in all sorts of awkward positions to maintain control over the snake/crocodile/bird-eating spider without losing a limb, “or worse,” as he exclaims. And Irwin’s and our fascination is manifestly derived from the potential threat they pose, whether real or not. Otherwise, he wouldn’t remind us, over and over, of the danger he’s putting himself in, and we wouldn’t watch him do it, again and again.