Animal cruelty charges blight blockbuster bid

VIDEO: What was supposed to be a cheery Christmas film based on a Swedish best-selling novel has become decidedly controversial following accusations that the film's elephants, including one named Gandhi, were abused.

Animal cruelty charges blight blockbuster bid
An elephant scene from the film. Screengrab: Buena Vista Sweden/YouTube

The film version of the Swedish best-selling novel "The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared" is set for release on Christmas Day, but is being boycotted by Animal Defenders International (ADI) for using an abused elephant in filming. 

In 2009, ADI exposed the Great British Circus for using three elephants, known as Vana Mana, Sonja, and Delhi, who were routinely chained and beaten by their German trainer Lars Hölscher. Both Hölscher and his assistant were caught on camera using sharp instruments on sensitive areas to get the elephants to obey commands. Through the film's press material, ADI discovered that Vana Mana, now called Gandhi, is also in the new movie. 

"The trainer fled the country, and he still has the animals and has changed their names," said Fleur Dawes, ADI spokesperson, to news agency TT. "But we've kept our eye on them."

The trainer arrived in Sweden earlier this year and his elephants began  performing in Cirkus Skott. Word of his animal cruelty and the shocking footage from ADI sparked an outcry against the well-known circus, and in October the popular Swedish company officially stopped using elephants after having them as part of its repertoire for 76 years.

See ADI's footage on the treatment of the animals:

"We must develop and listen to what our audiences want to experience," Cirkus Scott director Robert Bronett announced in a statement in October. "We have therefore decided to stop presenting wild animals in our shows."

Bronett added that he would miss the elephants. 

The decision was too late to affect the movie, however, which began filming in October 2012. The film's producer, Malte Forsell, confirmed to TT that they rented the elephant from Cirkus Scott, and that they were unaware of any cruelty issues.

"We contacted them and asked if they had an elephant we could use. And they did," Forsell explained. "We didn't know at the time that this specific elephant trainer was so controversial. And I don't even know if he was there during filming."

Forsell said that the segments where the elephant is used are very brief, and that all it did was "stand in a garden". The close-up scenes and stunts are all CGI animation. But ADI is not satisfied with the reply. 

"To use wild animals in film is considered animal abuse, and in this case it's even more serious since there is no evidence that this notorious trainer has stopped abusing his animals," Dawes said. 

The original book, written by Swedish author Jonas Jonasson and described by the UK Independent as "arguably the biggest word-of-mouth literary sensation of the decade", revolves around an elderly man who goes on a whirlwind adventure after escaping from his retirement home. 

"It is an incredibly cinematic story that is very warm and filled with feel-good humour," said Harold Van Lier, head of the film's international distribution, to online magazine Variety earlier this year.  "It will undoubtedly be one of the major films coming out of Scandinavia at the end of this year."
See the trailer for "The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared":
The book sold over five million copies in 35 countries within a year of its publication, but ADI is calling for a widespread boycott of the film version, which is co-produced by the Nordic branch of the Walt Disney Company.

Solveig Rundquist
Follow Solveig on Twitter.

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