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‘Life, Animated’ tells uplifting story of how Disney films saved a family

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Owen Suskind’s love of Disney comes out in the powerful documentary “Life, Animated.” (COURTESY THE ORCHARD)

The new documentary “Life, Animated” tells an unusually uplifting story about how a young man with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) eventually learned to communicate thanks to his love of Disney movies.

Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Roger Ross Williams (“Music by Prudence”) brings the story, based on the book by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ron Suskind, to the big screen.

Williams, joined by Ron and his wife Cornelia Suskind, recently visited The City to discuss the film and its subject, Ron and Cornelia’s son, Owen.

At age 3, Owen suddenly seemed to retreat within himself, much to the dismay and fear of his parents. But multiple viewings of “The Little Mermaid,” “Peter Pan” and other films helped draw him out.

“Autistic kids have a much greater understanding than we do,” says Cornelia. “I think it’s why they connect to all the emotions in the Disney movies. Because their communication is so difficult, they operate on a more emotional plane.”

Ron concurs: “The inability to express emotion does not mean the absence of emotion,” he says. “You often find a way in through the thing they love, because that’s what they use as a codebreaker.”

Over the course of “Life, Animated,” Owen gains enough maturity to be able to live in his own apartment. Director Williams had to make quick decisions about whether or not to interfere. For example, when Owen has trouble finding his medication, Williams holds back and keeps filming until the crisis is over.

“If it became an emergency situation, then, yeah,” Williams says. “There’s always a line where you jump in.”

Now 25, Owen has thrived in the time since the documentary wrapped. He has begun to explore certain live-action movies, including the “Batman” series. But animation remains his first love. “His idols are the hand-drawn animators,” says Cornelia. “Those are the highest of the pantheon.”

He cooks his own meals (though he still hasn’t quite mastered cookies) and even works several jobs. One of them is a weekly show at a college radio station playing, you guessed it, Disney music.

“I was concerned about what his life would be like after the documentary came out. Would it disrupt his routine?” says Cornelia. “But the thing you didn’t think about is the thing that happens. He has grown so much in this process. It really has been beautiful.”

Ron says even though the documentary is not what Owen might ordinarily watch, he loves it. “He says, ‘It’s a beautiful movie. It’s my real life, with all the ups and downs.’”

IF YOU GO: Life, Animated

Starring: Owen Suskind, Ron Suskind Directed by: Roger Ross Williams Rated: PG Running time: 1 hour, 29 minutes

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