Avatar 2: The Way of Water took 13 years to make and had an estimated budget of US $300 million ($437 million), but a “misstep” in its promotion has led to “heartbreak”, “anger” and even calls to boycott the film.
At the centre of the uproar is a live captive dolphin show that was used during the film’s Japanese premiere. In attendance were actors Zoe Saldana, Sam Worthington and Sigourney Weaver, along with director James Cameron.
Video of the event shows Mr Cameron introducing the show with the words “Welcome to Pandora” - a reference to the world in which the Avatar films are set. A pod of trained dolphins then swim around the pool, performing tricks while grand orchestral music plays on the aquarium’s speakers. The actors can be seen clapping and filming the performance on their phones.
In another clip Mr Cameron appears to joke about dolphin captivity, saying "I'm sure everybody asked their permission to be in the show." "I love these animals, I love their intelligence," he said.
At the end of the performance, the Avatar director can be seen waving his hand to the dolphins as they gesture back with their tails. Calling the show "spectacular", he later quipped that he'd like to be in the show and ride a dolphin.
Was the Avatar 2 stunt real?
Because the Avatar films use computer state-of-the-art animation to create alien worlds with strong environmental messaging and Mr Cameron is a committed vegan, a number of animal welfare advocates initially “didn’t believe” the footage.
Vice president of animal rights group PETA, Lisa Lange, told Yahoo News Australia she thought the dolphins must have been animatronic or that some kind of “movie magic” was being used. “But as I watched the video more I realised: No, James Cameron did do this.”
“To see James Cameron, Sigourney Weaver and Sam Worthington sitting there applauding was shocking,” she said. “The trainers were treating those dolphins like circus clowns. They were riding on the noses of the dolphins, I mean, that's as bad as it gets.”
Activist's plea to James Cameron after Avatar dolphin stunt
Activist Ric O’Barry, who featured in the Oscar-winning documentary The Cove, which focuses on the horrors of the Japanese dolphin industry, expressed his concern over the stunt. Speaking with Yahoo News Australia, Mr O’Barry called it “crazy”, adding he couldn’t understand why Mr Cameron, who he met at the Academy Awards in 2010, would use real dolphins in a film promotion.
Taking to Instagram Mr O’Barry said, “I was actually star-struck when he reached out to shake my hand as we walked the red carpet towards to stage of the iconic Kodak Theater to pick up the Oscar. That was ten years ago.”
Mr O’Barry was the original dolphin trainer for the 1960s television series Flipper and has been campaigning to end dolphin captivity for decades, founding the charity Dolphin Project to raise awareness about the issue. Urging Mr Cameron to watch The Cove and reach out to him, he added, “Maybe I can turn him around.”
Interactions with Mr O'Barry are aren't the only connection to The Cove that Mr Cameron has. He also participated in the plant-based eating documentary Game Changers, which had the same director, Louis Psihoyos.
Dark secret behind many Japanese dolphin parks
When it comes to captive dolphin breeding, Japan lags behind the abilities of US parks. Unable to breed the required number of dolphins, it’s common for parks to them to buy them from hunters instead. During this process, visually pleasing dolphins are sold into captivity, while others are killed for their meat.
The Avatar dolphin performance, was filmed at Maxell Aqua Park Shinagawa and photos of the event appeared on it's Twitter account on December 11. The park is a member of Japanese Association of Zoos and Aquariums (JAZA) and it has banned members from buying wild-caught dolphins since 2015.
The park’s JAZA membership does little to reassure critics of dolphin parks. Dr Naomi Rose, a marine mammal expert at the Animal Welfare Institute told Yahoo News Australia the stunt was a “misstep”. She said it was “truly unfortunate” that Mr Cameron “didn’t do some homework” before attending the show. She said the stunt sends a “mixed message” because while the film has strong environmental messaging, the dolphin park industry “exploits wildlife”.
Japanese fear Avatar stunt could renew interest in dolphin capture
Ren Yabuki, a Japanese animal rights activist, said it was unclear whether any of the dolphins used in the Avatar 2 show were caught in Japan. Some activists fear the popularity of the Avatar 2 promotion could renew interest in dolphin parks in Japan.
“The dolphin show at the opening event of the movie is highly likely to be a driving force behind the capture of more dolphins in Taiji in the future,” he told Yahoo News Australia. “I feel very angry.”
Activists call for Avatar 2 boycott
While some animal welfare advocates are hoping Mr Cameron will apologise for attending the dolphin show, others are taking a more extreme step and calling movie-goers to boycott Avatar 2.
Some have taken to Facebook to express their anger. “I wanted to see the new film especially as it was marine-themed. Now I can’t watch it because they f****d up royally with this,” one person wrote. “I was going to watch it. Now they can stick it,” another person said.
Australian activist Bailey Mason told Yahoo News Australia he was looking forward to seeing the film, but now he plans to avoid it and protest out the front of cinemas, asking others to do the same. He’s been posting about the dolphin stunt to his more than 15,000 Instagram followers, saying James Cameron “broke (his) heart”. “I would love to see James Cameron pledge to never attend a dolphin show ever again and to denounce the cruel capture and slaughter of dolphins happening in Taiji,” he wrote.
US-based anti-cruelty campaign group World Animal Protection said the stunt was "confoundingly out of step" with Mr Cameron's reputation. “Captive dolphins are confined to a tiny, barren, artificial environment 200 thousand times smaller than their natural habitat. They endure severe suffering and distress and live much shorter lives on average than their wild counterparts.," US programs director Cameron Harsh said in a statement.
Yahoo News Australia has requested comment from representatives of Mr Cameron and Disney. Attempts to contact Maxell Aqua Park Shinagawa for comment have been unsuccessful.
Avatar 2: The Way of Water is released on Thursday December 15 in Australia.
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