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‘Life, Animated’: How Disney cartoons opened up an autistic boy

Owen Suskind is the focus of the new documentary, "Life, Animated." | Photo Provided

In a very intriguing documentary, we are introduced to Owen Suskind, who learned to deal with his form of autism — Pervasive Developmental Disorder — through his love of (really more of an obsession with) Disney animated movies.

When Suskind was 3, it became obvious to his parents that he was not connecting or interacting with the world around him, as would be the case with normal toddlers. He did not speak clearly, and his relationships with family members were extremely forced and difficult.

Following Owen’s diagnosis, his father, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ron Suskind, wrote a book that is the foundation for director Roger Ross Williams’ film. As the memoir revealed, Owen virtually had a photographic memory, but only for soundtracks and dialogue from his favorite Disney films. His parents came to understand Owen’s approach to life was distilled for him via those Disney screenplays and plot points.

Most important, it was those films that brought joy into Owen’s life and gave him a sense of purpose.

What’s great about Williams’ documentary is his use of both the Suskinds’ home movies that have recorded Owen since he was an infant — and the extremely sensitive footage he shot of Owen today, living in an assisted living facility and working at a movie theater. Watching the clearly happy Owen amidst his impressive collection of Disney memorabilia is truly something to behold.

One thing that I liked was the fact that Williams does not in any way attempt to showcase Suskind’s connection to the Disney animated films as some kind of medical breakthrough for individuals dealing with Pervasive Developmental Disorder. This is simply a film about one young man and his family’s attention and love in dealing with his life and his condition.

For many of us, those iconic Walt Disney movies, from “Bambi” to “Cinderella” to “The Lion King,” have always touched our hearts. It’s moving to witness the impact they have had on the life of Owen Suskind — and the gratitude that revelation has produced in his immediate family members.

This is an intelligent and understated film that nicely presents one very particular life experience that will, in its own way, inspire the viewer — even the one who does not know anybody who is living with autism.


The Orchard presents a documentary directed by Roger Ross Williams. Running time: 91 minutes. Rated PG (for thematic elements, and language including a suggestive reference). Opens Friday at the Music Box Theatre and Landmark Renaissance Place in Highland Park.