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.)