Greetings again from the darkness. The magic of Disney takes on a whole new meaning for Ron and Cornelia Suskind, and their son Owen. Academy Award winning director Roger Ross Williams brings us the engaging story inspired by Ron’s best-selling book “Life, Animated: A Story of Sidekicks, Heroes and Autism”.
Ron, a well-respected journalist and writer, states … at age 3, our son Owen “disappeared”. Garbled talking and uneven walking took over their previously “normal” young son, and the doctor diagnosed “pervasive development disorder”. When the word “autism” was spoken, Ron and Cornelia realized their lives, and Owen’s, would never be the same.
Director Williams does an excellent job blending home movies, interviews and animation to give us a sense of what this family went through … and what an emotional wonder it was one evening when they realized that Owen was actually repeating the line “Just your voice” while watching The Little Mermaid. This led to “the first conversation we’ve ever had” as dad used an Aladdin puppet to talk with Owen.
It turns out that Owen had memorized ALL of the dialogue from that Disney classic, as well as all of the other Disney animated movies. What unfolds for the family is an ability to communicate through these movies, and with therapy, move Owen into a more mainstream lifestyle … speaking, reading, and writing. We get a peek at the professional therapy, as well as Owen leading his Disney club.
Much of the movie is structured to lead towards Owens independence at age 23 … a job and his own condo (in an assisted-living building). It’s interesting to hear the therapist discuss how the exaggerated features and emotions of the animated characters make it easier for Owen to interpret and understand – the stories and characters stay the same providing a sense of security and sameness for him.
Owen’s emotional range is on display with Emily (his first girlfriend) and his brother Walter (yep, can’t make this stuff up). It’s clear he understands the downside of independence (unpredictable life vs. scripted movies) while still leaning on his videos for the feel-good moments.
All parents have big dreams for what their kids might accomplish in life, but few parents are as thrilled and emotional as Ron and Cornelia when their son moves into his own place, and is later a featured speaker at a conference in France. Autism provides tremendous challenges for families and individuals, and if somehow animated Disney movies can provide life lessons and a forum for communication, then we should share in this family’s rejoicing. As they say … whatever works!
Opens Friday, July 1 in NY/LA and then nationwide in July/August.