Disney animation occupies a special place in the hearts of many children, but to call Owen Suskind’s relationship with films like “Beauty and the Beast” and “Aladdin” one of a kind would be an understatement.
For Owen, diagnosed at 3 with an autism-spectrum disorder, Disney films ultimately held the key to interpreting the outside world — and overcoming the frustrations of a disorder that for years left him largely unable to connect or communicate with others.
In the new documentary “Life, Animated,” Owen — along with his father, Ron, mother, Cornelia, and older brother, Walt — recount their life-changing revelation that it was possible to use Disney’s animated catalog to hold complex conversations with a then-nonverbal Owen. The key was learning his language: namely, dialogue lifted from around 50 titles he had quietly memorized over the course of his childhood.
The film opens Friday.
After that breakthrough, Owen’s story (previously recorded in a memoir by his father, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist) played out much like a classic Disney film. Finally cognizant of a way to reach their son, Ron and Cornelia fostered his passion for Disney, watching as Owen gradually recovered his speech and used the cartoons to make sense of a constantly changing world.
Now 25, Owen is an independent, high-functioning adult. The film explores recent events in his life, following him at 23 during a transformative year in which he left his family home in Cambridge for an apartment at an assisted-living facility, experienced his first serious relationship, started a “Disney club” with other developmentally disabled adults, and began working at — where else? — a local movie theater.
Ron Suskind, speaking by phone, explains that it was critical to make “Life, Animated” about the entirety of Owen’s life and journey, not just his autism.
“There’s a line in the movie people often respond to, where Cornelia says, ‘Ron, who decides what the meaningful life is?’ ” Suskind says. “Who gets to make that determination?”
At one screening for Disney animators, a guest brought up that same question. Owen was quick to respond, “I do,” recalls Suskind. “That question, and that answer, is at the core of this movie.”
Director Roger Ross Williams, an Oscar winner for the documentary short “Music By Prudence,” first befriended Ron Suskind 15 years ago when both men worked for ABC News. He’s remained close with the family since, even helping to film Owen’s bar mitzvah.
In setting out to make “Life, Animated,” the director relied on that friendship as he sought to capture the perspective of someone with autism.
“Ron’s a very public person, and Cornelia’s a very private person,” Williams says by phone. “Cornelia has said in multiple Q&As that no one else could have made this film. . . . I’ve been embedded in the family, in a sense, for 15 years, and that was really important to them, and that’s why I was able to get these intimate moments.”
In interviewing and recording the Suskind family, the director soon realized that depicting Owen’s worldview required more than a straightforward documentary approach. He used clips from Disney films that held special meaning to Owen, in addition to creating hand-drawn animated sequences that, he says, “let the audience go deeper into Owen’s mind.”
Those sequences have earned particular acclaim from festival audiences, including family members of individuals on the autism spectrum. Since its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, in January, “Life, Animated” has screened at multiple fests — and Williams says the response has been overwhelmingly positive.
“Parents come up and say, ‘Finally, we see our child and who he is portrayed on screen,’ ” the director recalls. “ ‘That’s true to what we know, and what we love. . . .’ They’d say, ‘Thank you, for creating this real, true portrait.’ ”
Ron Suskind adds that, with “Life, Animated,” he and Williams set out to make a film that would hold real significance for the autism community.
“This is the first time that people have been able to see through the eyes of a person with autism, to see what the world looks like to them, and to see how deep the well of insights they often have to offer goes,” Suskind explains. “It lets you go in through the thing they love — that’s part of what defines autism, all of those special interests — and what you get to see is how deeply many folks on the spectrum process the thing they love.”
Williams admits he didn’t know much about autism before embarking on the project, but his growing understanding of Owen dovetailed with a greater appreciation for the realities of living with the disorder. “As I got deeper into Owen’s world and creating a filmic language to see the world through his eyes, I learned,” he says, “and so does the audience.”
As the film’s subject, Owen simultaneously views “Life, Animated” as a chance to showcase life with autism and to fully introduce himself to the world.
“Owen has long said, since he was about 19 and growing in awareness, that ‘People don’t see me for who I am,’ ” explains Suskind. “He says, ‘I am more than what I appear. I am a diamond in the rough. I am an unpolished gem.’ ”
“And you know what movie that’s from?” he asks. “That one’s from ‘Aladdin.’ ”Isaac Feldberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter at @i_feldberg.