Disney's upcoming movie "Bubble Boy," promoted as a gag-a-minute comedy about a bumbling teenager who lives in a plastic bubble to avoid illness, ends with a disclaimer saying that the story is pure fiction.
But a group of angry parents and doctors wants Walt Disney Co. to halt next Friday's release of the film, saying it cuts too close to the real and tragic story of David Philip Vetter, a Texas youth who spent his entire 12 years inside a plastic enclosure because a life-threatening genetic disease made him susceptible to even the most common germs.
The 15,000-member Immune Deficiency Foundation, based in Towson, is leading the charge against the movie, calling for a nationwide boycott.
Even before his death in 1984, David Vetter had become the symbol for children suffering from severe combined immunodeficiency disease, or SCID. His lifelong isolation, which included wearing an astronaut-like bubble suit, was a one-time experiment. It forever linked the nickname "Bubble Boy" with him and the term "Bubble Boy Disease" with SCID.
Disney's movie, parents of SCID victims say, will only exacerbate the teasing and misunderstanding that their children experience.
About 50 SCID babies are born each year in this country; now, approximately half survive into adulthood, thanks to treatments such as gene therapy. Some live nearly cured of the disease, while others have to be extremely careful, wearing protective gear such as gloves and masks, or staying home during outbreaks of flu and other illnesses.
"All of our children are known as bubble boys," said Barbara Ballard, of Clifton, whose son, Ray, 7, has SCID. "What are they going to have to face at school after this comes out?"
If Disney won't pull back, members of the Immune Deficiency Foundation plan to protest at theaters showing the PG-13 film, handing out educational materials, founder Marcia Boyle said.
A Disney executive in Burbank, Calif., speaking on condition of anonymity, said this week that the company has no plans to drop the movie, which is being distributed by its Touchstone Pictures division. "I think many fears will be assuaged once people see the film," she said. "The bubble is just a setup for [the comedy]. There is no relationship with real life at all."
According to the film's Web site and ads, the main character is a California teenager who has spent his whole life in a plastic bubble. The boy falls for a local girl, and when he hears she is getting married in New York, he makes his way across the country, wearing a special bubble suit, to stop the wedding.
Previews for the movie show the boy getting run over by a bus and bounced around like a beach ball at a rock concert.
The images sicken Carol Ann Demaret, David Vetter's mother. "Disney says the resemblance to my son is purely coincidental," she said in a phone interview from her home in Houston this week. "But that can't be true if there was only one 'Bubble Boy' in history. Did they even think about how this might affect those who have to deal with this life-threatening disease?"
This is not the first time Disney has found itself in hot water with viewers. Controversy erupted a few years ago when some moviegoers saw the word "SEX" in a cloud of dust in the animated film "The Lion King." In 1999, the company recalled 3.4 million video copies of "The Rescuers" because an animator had added a fleeting image of a topless woman in the background of one scene.
Howard Suber, who teaches ethics at UCLA's film school, said Disney receives more complaints than any other movie studio because people associate it with family entertainment and hold it to a higher standard.
The company has bowed to public protests before, disassociating itself from the film "Dogma" in 1999 after pressure from U.S. Catholic groups that saw it as irreverent. But industry analysts said "Bubble Boy" is too far along in the pipeline to be stopped now.
Kevin Smith, who directed "Dogma," said movie boycotts can have the opposite effect, attracting more viewers than they turn away. "If you want people to ignore a movie, don't point at it, screaming, 'Look at it! It's evil!' " he said.
Disney's "Bubble Boy" is not the first to satirize the subject. NBC's "Seinfeld" aired a now-famous episode about a spoiled bubble boy who irritated everyone with his bratty behavior.
After it aired, the Immune Deficiency Foundation asked NBC never to show it again but was rebuffed, said Demaret, David Vetter's mother.
"My daughter watched it and just cried and cried," she said, adding that she refused to watch it and has no plans to see the movie, either. "I just don't want this next generation to associate David's life with this movie," she said. "It's a mockery to his memory and the courageous life he lived."