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'Life, Animated': An Inspiring Tale of How Disney Films Help a Boy With Autism

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Something frightening happened to Owen Suskind around the time he turned 3 years old. The rambunctious child who loved Disney movies and to play in the back yard suddenly turned into someone else.

"All of a sudden, at 3 years old, he vanishes," says his father, Ron Suskind, in the documentary  "Life, Animated," which opens in theaters on July 1. "It's like we were looking for clues to a kidnapping.

No one physically took Owen, of course. But he was suddenly in another world, and he spoke only gibberish if at all.

It was the early 1990s, and the elder Suskind, a journalist for The Wall Street Journal, had recently moved his family from Boston to Washington: his wife, Cornelia; their older son, Walt; and Owen. 

The Suskinds learned that Owen had regressive autism. The documentary creatively tells a story that Suskind told in a 2014 book, also titled "Life, Animated."

Owen continued to watch his Disney movies, and one day, he spoke to his parents in a phrase that seemed to be real words, at least. The parents figured out that it was a line from "The Little Mermaid." They were hopeful, but a doctor counseled them to dial down their expectations.

But soon after, Owen's language kept improving, and one day he came running into the kitchen cleanly reciting a line from Disney's animated version of "Peter Pan."

"He said, he 'doesn't want to grow up like Mogli or Peter Pan," Ron Suskind says of Owen in the documentary.

The father says he became convinced that Owen was using favorite Disney movies such as "The Little Mermaid," "Peter Pan," "Aladdin," and "The Lion King," "to actually make sense of the world he's living in. Our world."

The rest of "Life, Animated" is a powerful tale of how those Disney movies, and especially Disney sidekicks such as Baloo, the bear from "The Jungle Book," and Sebastian, the crab from "The Little Mermaid," and others help Owen learn to communicate and continue to make sense of his world.

Owen is eventually able to go to school, though the film cites one Washington private school where he struggles and is eventually asked to leave.

The documentary's own filming (as opposed to family videos from years ago) shows Owen as a young adult, learning to reside on his own in an assisted-living facility, seeking a job, and hanging out with a girlfriend from his autistic community.

At a question-and-answer session after a recent screening at the American Film Institute's AFI DOCS film festival, Owen, Ron, and Cornelia Suskind appeared and received sustained applause from a large audience at the Newseum in Washington. 

"I feel like a celebrity, but not much of a celebrity," said Owen in a way that seemed like he was trying to stay humble.

Director Roger Ross Williams said he found it important "to tell this story from Owen's point of view." That included using technology to record Owen's reactions as he watched some of his Disney films. 

(The family and the director had a similar chat to promote the documentary this week on ABC's "The View.")

The New York Times reported last Sunday that the Walt Disney Co., which is normally very protective of its intellectual property, agreed to allow the documentary to use some of Owen's drawings of Disney characters (mostly those sidekicks), and for the documentary itself to use its own rudimentary drawings of Disney characters in its own animation that is used to tell the story of Owen's younger years. (The doc also includes some regular clips from Disney films, for which it paid licensing fees, the Times said.)

Walt Suskind, Owen's brother, makes an observation in the film about how Disney animated movies can only go so far in helping a young person with autism when it comes to some more mature themes of adulthood.

That part of life is something Owen is still figuring out. But the fact that he has made it as far as he has is, for now, a happy ending.


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