It’s heartbreaking for any parent to learn that their child is ill or has some kind of handicap. I can’t picture how the Suskind family felt when their younger son Owen stopped talking at the age of 3. It’s unthinkable. But it’s just as hard to imagine how he broke through his shell: by making reference to Disney animated cartoons.

Life, Animated is based on the best-selling book of the same name by Owen’s father, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ron Suskind. Owen’s story is told in intimate detail by director Roger Ross Williams, who earned the entire family’s trust. He uses evocative animation by Mac Guff (and written by Emily Hubley) to fill in our hero’s story and try to replicate the imaginative images in his head.

It doesn’t hurt that Owen, now a young man who’s about to move into his own apartment, is extremely likable and camera-friendly. So are his parents and older brother.

Walt Disney features have always pushed our emotional buttons, from Bambi to The Lion King. For someone as sensitive and emotionally naïve as Owen, they have done much more, providing him with a guideline and blueprint for life. True, most of that life has been spent in the loving embrace of his family, but when he attended a high school for special-needs students he was bullied. This also put him in mind of Disney films where someone is taunted or belittled.

Life, Animated is a quietly powerful true-life story that you may find yourself watching through periodic waves of tears, as I did. It is the ultimate underdog saga and I’m happy to say that, just like all classic Disney cartoon features, it has a happy ending.

(P.S. On a personal note, I have met two other autistic boys over the years who were Disney Savants. Apparently this phenomenon is not unique.)

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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May 2024