A Boy With Autism Makes Connections Through Cartoons In 'Life, Animated'

Jul 8, 2016
Originally published on March 7, 2017 6:39 am

I have some reservations about the documentary Life, Animated, but they can't undermine how moved I was watching its subject, Owen Suskind, who has autism, figure out how to navigate the world using Disney cartoons as a reference point.

Here's the scenario laid out by the movie, which is directed by Roger Ross Williams from a book by journalist Ron Suskind. When Owen, Suskind and his wife Cornelia's second son, was born, he seemed "normal" until age 3, when, as Suskind puts it, he "vanished." His motor skills deteriorated. He lost what language he'd attained. Autism was diagnosed. "Someone kidnapped our son," Suskind says.

The young Owen is seen in videos as well as original animated scenes by the French visual effects company Mac Guff. But much of Life, Animated follows the Suskind family today. Owen is 23 and in the process of graduating from a special school in Cape Cod. He'll be moving into his own apartment in an assisted-living facility. He has a girlfriend. He's still watching Disney cartoons. He even runs a Disney cartoon club, which he says makes him popular with other students.

The movie jumps back and forth between Owen now and as a little boy, when his parents were showing him those cartoons just to keep him calm. One day he came to his parents saying words they could barely understand — which turned out to be, "Just your voice."

It's a phrase from The Little Mermaid, whose heroine is told she'll have to surrender something — "Just your voice." Over and over Owen says those words, and a doctor tells the Suskinds it might be "echolalia" — that is, mere repetition. Or it might be, Suskind says, a sign that, "He's still in there."

There's no way of knowing if or when Owen would have found his voice without Disney — no way of exploring that road not taken. But watching Life, Animated, I could extrapolate some things. As I watched Owen pace, hands behind his back, showing anxiety and self-consciousness as he tried to learn social cues, I thought maybe it helps that he can identify with a character in a movie. Maybe this is how someone with autism can learn empathy.

But the most marvelous part of Life, Animated is when Owen conceives of his own animated film, based on his feeling that he'll never be a hero, someone capable of making strong choices and leading, but only a sidekick to a hero. He writes and sketches Land of the Lost Sidekicks — which director Roger Ross Williams actually turned into a film. What we see of that film is both heartbreaking and exhilarating. As a feat of imagination, it's heroic.

Owen's story is hardly settled in Life, Animated. His brother is being interviewed when a call comes in that Owen's girlfriend has broken up with him. That makes sense to me — Owen does seem a bit clutchy in his scenes with her. Now he's bereft, uncomprehending.

That's the sad part of the movie, as his father suggests when he worries that Owen needs to learn to fail and fail again and keep moving on: You can't learn everything in life from a Disney cartoon.

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DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli in for Terry Gross. In 2014, journalist Ron Suskind published a very personal book, titled "Life, Animated," about his autistic son and the amazing way his son responded to Disney's animated characters. That book and that story is the basis of a new documentary also called "Life, Animated." Film critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: I have some reservations about the documentary "Life, Animated," but they can't undermine how moved I was watching its subject, Owen Suskind, who has autism, figure out how to navigate the world using Disney cartoons as a reference point. Here's the scenario laid out by the movie, which is directed by Roger Ross Williams from a book by journalist Ron Suskind. When Owen, Suskind and his wife Cornelia's second son, was born, he seemed, quote, "normal" until age 3, when, as Suskind puts it, he vanished. His motor skills deteriorated. He lost what language he'd attained. Autism was diagnosed. Says Suskind, someone kidnapped our son.

The young Owen is seen in videos as well as original animated scenes by the French visual effects company Mac Guff, but much of "Life, Animated" follows the Suskind family today. Owen is 23. And in the process of graduating from a special school in Cape Cod, he'll be moving into his own apartment in an assisted-living facility. He has a girlfriend. He's still watching Disney cartoons. He even runs a Disney cartoon club, which he says makes him popular with other students.

The movie jumps back and forth between Owen now and as a little boy when his parents were showing him those cartoons just to keep him calm. One day, he came to his parents saying words they could barely understand, which turned out to be just your voice. It's a phrase from "The Little Mermaid," whose heroine is told she'll have to surrender something. Just your voice. Over and over, he says those words. And a doctor tells the Suskinds, it might be echolalia, that is, mere repetition. Or, it might be, says Suskind, a sign that, quote, "he's still in there."

Ron's account - illustrated with Mac Guff's animation - of approaching his son with the puppet of Iago is stunning. Suskind also does a pretty great imitation of Gilbert Gottfried.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "LIFE, ANIMATED")

RON SUSKIND: So I go up to his room. I see Owen on the bed flipping through a Disney book. And I see - sort of over to my left, I see Iago, the puppet. Now, Iago is the evil sidekick to the villain, Jafar, from "Aladdin." Now, I know Owen loves this puppet.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ALADDIN")

GILBERT GOTTFRIED: (As Iago) Jafar, Jafar. Get a grip.

SUSKIND: I grab the puppet. I pull it up to my elbow. And I begin to crawl across the rug as quietly as I can. And Owen turns to the puppet like he's bumping into an old friend. I say to him, (imitating Iago voice) Owen, Owen. How does it feel to be you?

OWEN SUSKIND: And I said, not good 'cause I don't have any friends.

SUSKIND: Now I'm under the bedspread, and I just bite down hard, you know? I just say to myself, stay in character.

(Imitating Iago voice) And I said, OK, OK. Owen? When did you and I become such good friends?

And he said, when I watched "Aladdin," you made me laugh.

And then we talk, Owen and Iago, for a minute - minute and a half. It's the first conversation we've ever had.

EDELSTEIN: There's no way of knowing if or when Owen would have found his voice without Disney, no way of exploring that road not taken. But watching "Life, Animated," I could extrapolate some things. As I watched Owen pace, hands behind his back, showing anxiety and self-consciousness as he tried to learn social cues, I thought, maybe it helps that he can identify with a character in a movie. Maybe this is how someone with autism can learn empathy.

But the most marvelous part of "Life, Animated" is when Owen conceives of his own animated film based on his feeling that he'll never be a hero - someone capable of making strong choices and leading - but only a sidekick to a hero. He writes and sketches "Land Of The Lost Sidekicks," which director Roger Ross Williams actually turned into a film. What we see of that film is both heartbreaking and exhilarating. As a feat of imagination, it's heroic.

Owen's story is hardly settled in "Life, Animated." His brother is being interviewed when a call comes in that Owen's girlfriend has broken up with him. That makes sense to me - Owen does seem a bit clutch-y in his scenes with her. Now he's bereft, uncomprehending. That's the sad part of the movie. As his father suggests, when he worries that Owen needs to learn to fail and fail again and keep moving on, you can't learn everything in life from a Disney cartoon.

BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine. Coming up, we remember Elie Wiesel, who died last weekend at age 87, by replaying part of an interview Terry conducted with him in 1988. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.