The creators of Wallace and Gromit and Chicken Run are at the centre of an angry storm surrounding their latest film amid accusations of bad taste and disability discrimination.
Aardman Animations has been accused of poking fun at millions of people with leprosy in The Pirates! In an adventure with Scientists – the highly anticipated animation set for release in March.
The short trailer, seen by hundreds of thousands of people on You Tube and in cinemas worldwide, shows the main pirate character landing on a so called 'leper ship' looking for gold, but is then clearly aghast when the 'leper's' arm falls off.
Leprosy campaigners have written to Aardman demanding an apology and asking that the scene be cut before the film is released after being inundated with complaints from sufferers across the globe. The film is written by Gideon Defoe, the man behind the popular Pirates books.
In a letter to Aardman, UK charity Lepra Health in Action expressed their “utter dismay” at the scene which they say “in an instant reinforces the misconceptions which leads to stigma and discrimination that prevents people from coming forward for treatment.”
“Would Aardman poke fun at other illnesses and disabilities?” wrote Lepra CEO Sarah Nancollas.
Victoria Hislop, whose best-selling novel The Island was set on a leprosy colony off Crete in the 1930s, last night said: “It's all too easy to reinforce the ancient ideas about leprosy and the stigma attached to it and a real pity that the film-makers weren't aware of all the work that has gone in to correcting the misconceptions.”
More than 3million people worldwide live with leprosy related disabilities, incurable because they sought help too late. A person is diagnosed with the disease every two minutes but thousands of people avoid seeing a doctor, put off by the stigma and discrimination that still exists.
Several senior World Health Organisation officials have also raised objections to the film and called for the offending scene to be removed. In a meeting in Delhi earlier this week, they were among nine leprosy experts who said: “The film shows a derogatory scene on leprosy and is spreading an unscientific picture of leprosy. Such pictures will undo the benefits of health education.”
The decision to run the trailer on the front page of the Time of India website has been particularly criticised as more than 130,000 new cases are found in India ever year. Among those to have raised concerns with Lepra Indian is Vagavathali Narsappa, 42, who lives in one of the 98 leprosy colonies in the state of Andhra Pradesh and is president of the Society for Leprosy Affected People.
Campaigners fear that the so-called joke will undo years of hard work spent educating children about the truths and myths of the disease which is still feared in many parts of the world.
Jose Ramirez, a leprosy sufferer who was institutionalised for seven years, has written to Michelle Obama asking her not to allow the film to be viewed at the White House. “I know that this may be a symbolic gesture but considering the she has two daughters who may be exposed to this film is an oxymoron as she is against bullying......and the pirate animated film is about bullying of children with disabilities, especially those affected by leprosy.”
Ms Nancollas wrote: “It is with deep regret that Aardman has decided to put comedy ahead of common sense and made this joke in such poor taste. Whilst we understand that film makers tread a fine line with many forms of discrimination, it appears little thought has been given to this particularly sensitive issue.”
Aardman last night said: “Aardman take matters like this most seriously and is reviewing the situation.”