Once upon a time there was a boy who loved his younger autistic brother so much he considered teaching him the birds and the bees through the means of Disney porn.
Strangely bittersweet, this interaction between Walt (no relation to the great animator) and Owen, who is autistic, leads to one of the most memorable moments in Life, Animated, a new documentary directed by Roger Ross Williams, based on the book of the same name written by the boys’ father, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ron Suskind.
“You don’t just use your lips, you use your…” Walt broaches, with Owen responding while grinning triumphantly, “Feelings.”
Owen retreated into himself aged three, much to the distress of Ron and wife Cornelia Kennedy. Later diagnosed with a Pervasive Developmental Disorder, he wasn’t expected to regain speech or be able to live independently. His cherished Disney movies were the only thing that could hold his attention.
In an effort to reach out to his younger brother, Walt would mimic the animation company’s colourful cast of treasured characters, from the The Lion King’s brave Simba to the evil Jafar and his squawking sidekick macaw Iago from Aladdin. As Owen’s seeming gibberish began to form into lines of dialogue recited wholly from memory, soon he was using the characters stories in complex ways to convey emotion and empathy, helping him communicate with his family.
Williams, the first African-American director to win an Academy Award, for his 2010 documentary short Music by Prudence, worked with Ron for years at ABC News and was a natural fit to tell their story. He does so beautifully.
Debuting at the Sundance Film Festival, Life, Animated picks up where the book left off. “When the Suskinds decided to do this, it was because Owen came to them and said, ‘People look past me, they don’t know who I am or they don’t want to,’” Williams says. “To me it was always a coming-of-age film about the power of story to transform us all really. It was never a film about autism.”
“To me it was always a coming-of-age film about the power of story to transform us all really. It was never a film about autism.”
As the film opens, Owen is 23. Now highly functioning, he has graduated from school, and is moving out of his parents’ house. He’s also dating his first girlfriend, hence why Walt considers Disney porn, noting that the company doesn’t exactly tackle sexuality.
“It was very emotional for Ron and Cornelia to hear those words, with Walt talking about that responsibility he feels,” Williams says.
Owen’s childhood is relayed in gorgeously textural animated flashbacks produced by French company Mac Guff (The Lorax, Despicable Me). They draw on Owen’s autobiographical story, identifying as a sidekick, never a hero, and plagued by a confusing villain who breathes fog into his head.
“The thing about Owen is that he grew up on this diet of myth and fable,” Williams adds. “These stories are classics that have been told for thousands of years and Disney just updates them. That makes him very wise and an expert on life, because these stories are how we connect as humans.”
The film makes you wonder how much human potential has been lost due to diagnoses that write off the chances of many kids like Owen. Ron and Cornelia refused to give up hope, ignoring advice to prevent Owen from fixating by watching his Disney videos on repeat.
While Disney movies won’t help everyone like magical broomsticks are talking birds, the Suskinds experience has sparked a worldwide movement called Affinity Therapy, based on their approach of unlocking Owen’s personality through his passion. Ron and Owen now speak at global conferences, schools and film screenings. They’ve even addressed the US congress and the UN, with MIT, Cambridge and Stanford engaging studies on the technique.
For their part Disney, notoriously protective of their characters, did not stand in the way after Williams presented to company bigwigs at their Burbank base in California, prompt cards shaking in his hands, eliciting tears all round the boardroom. “They know their work is such a big part of culture, but they didn’t know it could change someone’s life. That touched them.”
It was vitally important for Williams that audiences see the world from Owen’s perspective. “They start the film with his pacing and self-talking making them uncomfortable, but by the end they know exactly what’s going on in his head and they’re in there with him.”
Using an Interrotron camera hidden behind a screen displaying Williams face, the director could interview Owen. The young man is the only person who looks directly at the camera, in a clever subversion of expectations surrounding autism. Williams would flick between live footage of himself and the clips of the Disney movies used in Life, Animated. “It’s not a condescending look from the outside,” Williams says. “The film’s from the inside.”
Owen has forged firm friendships with many figures within the animation industry, including voice actors Gilbert Gottfried and star Jonathan Freeman who portrayed Iago and Jafar in Aladdin. He has high hopes to join them in the business one day. Anything seems possible for this bright star.
“He attended a screening for all the animators at Disney and whoever came up to Owen, they would say their name and he knew their entire resume off the top of his head,” Williams beams. “He’s like a walking IMDB.”
Catch Life, Animated at MIFF this weekend. Theatrical release follows on September 29.