It can be easy to be cynical towards Disney. The behemoth of children’s entertainment has made an imprint on our culture landscape, and the gigantic corporation seems to swallow up certain aspects of our culture in order to churn out cheap plastic trinkets, video games, and movie-themed rides at their amusement parks. But there’s a genuine connection that people make to the animated world of Walt Disney, and people of all ages carry that connection with them for most of their lives. One individual who identified with the anthropomorphic characters of Disney’s animated films is Owen Suskind, an autistic man in his early 20 who has spent his life bonding with Disney movies. His story is documented in the new film Life, Animated, which explores Owen’s life in a moment of transition and how his connection to Disney gave him and his family hope even during the most trying of times.
Owen’s young life isn’t that different than the lives of many other children. He laughed. He played. He was the apple of his parents’ eyes. Then at the age of 3, Owen suffered problems with his speech and motor functions. He was diagnosed as autistic. Years passed and his dear parents Ron and Cornelia Suskind saw no improvement in their young son. Specialists and doctors gave them no new answers, and their hearts sank when faced with the sad realization that their son may be beyond help. One day, the young Owen began to speak to his father, trying to a form a sentence despite the difficulty with pronunciation. It was then that they realized that Owen was trying to speak a line of dialogue form Aladdin, the early ‘90s animated cartoon. Over time, Owen was able to gain communication skills from Disney movies and narratives of the films gave him understanding as to the nature of the world.
At 23, Owen is ready to leave his life at home and venture out on his own. He’s about to graduate from his school and move into his own apartment nearly 70 miles from his parents’ home. Owen is about to step out into an unknown world yet always retains the comfort of the Disney animated movies, even when his girlfriend of three years dumps him. Despite all of his struggles, Owen strives for normalcy and friendships. He’s even given the opportunity to speak at a conference on autism in Rennes, France.
The film by director Roger Ross Williams takes its inspiration from the book Life, Animated: A Story of Sidekicks, Heroes, and Autism by Ron Suskind. One of the most interesting aspects of Owen’s story is how he bonded closest with the sidekicks of the Disney movies, even going as far to write his own story The Land of the Lost Sidekicks which appears in animated form in the movie. In the story Owen injects a sense of autobiography as he cavorts with his favorite animated sidekicks. Always feeling an outcast, Owen doesn’t view himself as the leading man in any of the Disney films which he loves, so he crafted his own story of sidekicks where he could emerge as the hero. As with much of the film, it really has the ability to tug on the heart strings.
Life, Animated doesn’t always tell its story in the most cinematic of fashion, but those deficiencies are obscured by the charismatic, lovable Owen. When the camera peers upon him watching a movie, mouthing every word of dialogue in sync, the joy in his eyes leaps through the screen and it’s impossible not to revel in the his visceral excitement. One of the most entertaining parts of the film is when Jonathan Freeman and Gilbert Gottfried (voices of the villainous Jafar and Iago in Aladdin) make an appearance at the Disney club that Owen has organized. There’s just something so amusing and heartwarming about this young man being beyond thrilled at the chance to meet Gilbert Gottfried, and the legendary comedian feeds off Owen’s joyous aura and freely riffs zingers. It’s moments like these that make Life, Animated a worthwhile viewing experience.
When it seems that the public discussion concerning autism is typically relegated to the nonsensical debate over vaccines, a film like Life, Animated is welcome addition to the discussion. This isn’t a movie that tries to peddle pseudoscience or answers to questions that have no solutions. Here is a movie that is about love, compassion, and the power of the movies. It’s impossible not to well up a little bit at some of the film’s more trying moments and impossible not to laugh and smile at its more joyous ones. It doesn’t matter if you love the animated films of Disney or see them as crude pieces of profiteering, when you see what these movies do to buoy the soul of Owen Suskind, they’ve proved their value is beyond the bottom line.