Cleft palate support charities have hit out at Disney's new summer blockbuster The Lone Ranger amid accusations that the villain was given a birth defect to make him look more "evil".
Disney's promotional material for the film said of William Fichtner's character Butch Cavendish: "Cavendish is a ruthless outlaw whose terribly scarred face is a perfect reflection of the bottomless pit that passes for his soul."
Fichtner told entertainment reporters that his "broken nose and cleft lip" made it easier to slip into his role, and meant he didn't need to act any more evil because it was obvious from his face.
The Cleft Lip and Palate Association (CLAPA) issued a statement saying Disney was "cashing in on prejudice" and urged its members to lodge complaints with the film's producers.
The character's scarred upper lip was added during hours of make-up, and the focus on Butch Cavendish's appearance has not escaped the notice of film reviewers.
The American movie website Lost in Reviews featured a post which said: "William Fichtner oozes creeptastic vibes from his villainous character, with his long greasy hair and extreme cleft lip."
Even the official set of The Lone Ranger Lego toys features a small Butch Cavendish with a very prominent cleft lip.
In an open letter to executives at Lego, a member of the US community website "babycenter" wrote: "You make toys for children and these toys (often wonderfully) impact how they perceive or create the world.
"Holding this responsibility, how can you have created and market a toy with an obvious cleft lip - aware of the damage and hurt you are causing to children that may already be struggling to overcome this specific challenge?"
CLAPA said Disney was sending out "a deeply harmful message that will impact the 90,000 people that were born with a cleft in the UK as well as others worldwide".
Their statement read: "What message does this send to movie-goers about people with a cleft or anyone with a visible difference? What message does it send to those who have a cleft themselves about how they are seen by society?
"A congenital abnormality is not something to be made fun of, a cleft lip does not add to the "look" of a villain, a character like this will not help the public's perception or understanding of cleft, and Disney, we will NOT be going to see your movie."
Across the Atlantic, the Toronto Star reported Rachel Mancuso, who runs the website cleftsmile.org, as saying she had received around 1000 emails a day from people complaining about the film.
She told the Star: "As a parent and educator, I'm having a hard time understanding why they had to create a bad guy and slap on the number one birth defect."
The executive director of another charity, Transforming Faces, said: "It's disheartening that a major motion picture would perpetuate this negative perception and we hope that in future, birth defects and facial differences will not be used to portray 'evil' characters."
And the matter has been particularly contentious in the US; in the same week that The Lone Ranger was released over there, the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention announced that July was "National Cleft and Craniofacial Awareness and Prevention Month".
As CLAPA said: "Disney have clearly proven that awareness is still a serious problem."
Disney was unavailable for comment.
- The Independent