“Just your voice”
It’s 2017 and yet I’m pretty sure you think about one of two things when hearing the word autism: Rain Man or vaccination. This is a shame because it only helps bolster the stigma assigned to the disorder. Pop culture has latched onto the “spectrum” with multiple examples of Asperger’s syndrome, but full-blown autism remains relegated to a nightmare scenario instead. So just imagine what Ron and Cornelia Suskind must have thought during the early nineties when their son Owen was officially diagnosed. Hardly a few years removed from Dustin Hoffman‘s Oscar-winning portrayal, the prospects of “normalcy” seemed limited at face value and even worse when paired with the reality that Owen stopped talking. When doctors say to “fear the worst,” it’s tough not to do exactly that.
This is why a film like Roger Ross Williams‘ Life, Animated is so important as a means to counteract the doom and gloom behavioral issues carry. It’s a documentary about two parents who never gave up on their son and how he in turn found meaning in Disney classics. Those characters onscreen became Owen’s surrogates, their dialogue integral to how he interacted with the world. He watched Ursula steal Ariel’s voice and saw his ailment taking his. He found his older brother Walter crying after a birthday party when both were still young and made the connection that he didn’t want to grow up like Peter Pan and Mowgli. Somehow, despite being unable to converse with the people around him, Owen learned complex emotions and comprehension via cartoon.
And it makes perfect sense. As explained in the film, the exaggerated expressions drawn in the 2D animated format allowed Owen to concretely know what was happening on the surface and beneath. Rather than being overwhelmed with sensory overload in his day-to-day enough to retreat from conversation, watching a VHS copy of The Hunchback of Notre Dame cut through that noise. He could focus, memorize the lines, and use its lessons to break free from his mind. But even as these black and white, good versus evil yarns ending happily ever after coaxed out the boy his parents remembered before his third birthday changed everything, they couldn’t prepare him for the challenges a non-storybook life provides. Quasimodo gave back his voice, but Owen still had to use it.
The film looks towards this future as an extension of Ron Suskind’s book Life, Animated: A Story of Sidekicks, Heroes, and Autism. Williams weaves in scenes from Disney films that infer upon Owen’s moods and mindsets while also illustrating the “breakthrough” moments his parents remember from his youth. The comparison between Quasimodo or Pinocchio and the boy’s adolescence are obvious; the myriad sidekicks helping heroes easily parallel the life Owen sees himself leading today. Original animation arrives to portray Suskind as a protector of sidekicks, an ambassador much like his role in the film and beyond for men and women like him. Anyone who ever questioned what Owen’s role in his community could be have their answer as his ability to advocate for autism has gone global.
As with everyone, however, this type of public success isn’t without private struggles. Owen is twenty-three years old and on the cusp of graduating, his next chapter introducing newfound freedom and responsibility. He’ll soon be living on his own in an assisted living apartment seventy-five miles from home. His girlfriend Emily will be his neighbor and the hunt for a job will commence. Suddenly he’s moved past “happy endings” into a realm of disappointment that he’ll have to face head-on. Coping with this realization moves beyond Disney metaphor into hard work and perseverance. And it goes beyond Owen too as his parents are forced to deal with the transition as spectators, his brother the weight of knowing he must step up once time renders him the primary caregiver.
It’s a feel good movie with compassion, struggle, and hope. We watch Owen become a man many believed never would do the things he’s doing. There are some brilliantly endearing moments like Aladdin alums Jonathan Freeman and Gilbert Gottfried visiting his school’s Disney club and uplifting scenarios such as Owen being invited to speak at an autism conference in France. The projection of Disney on top of everything can seem a bit manufactured (the Suskind family singing “Be Our Guest” in fake French accents when walking to the conference), especially when a cursory look at Owen’s video shelf shows non-Disney films. But at a certain point you must pare down the story and focus on a through-line. Disney is that because of Owen’s affinity for specific catalog selections.
I personally would have enjoyed a document of what those movies were actually doing to Owen’s brain, but Ron explains no one really knows. Maybe his son’s story is a fluke or maybe it’s something that other parents can use for their kids too. Things slow down immensely when Owen moves out of the house and real life drama start weighing heavily upon him, but the fact he takes it in stride and strives to overcome is inspiring. In the end this isn’t a film about Disney having mentally regenerative properties. It’s a personal tale about beating the odds as familial love conquers all. This is Owen’s journey from isolation to integrated adulthood, from bullied victim to empowered spokesperson for a disorder most would rather believe doesn’t exist.