Documentary Review: Life, Animated

The other day, I was watching Hardball with Chris Matthews on MSNBC. One of his guests was journalist and author Ron Suskind who mentioned a documentary about his autistic son who learned to communicate through Disney movies. Of course, my ears perked up and I immediately looked it up online to see how I could watch it. At the time, it was making its way through film festivals with none of them close to where I live. So, given the film was produced by A&E, I hoped, one day, the channel would eventually air it. But, fortunately, the film was shortly thereafter released on Google Play and I just got a chance to watch it.

The documentary follows Ron and Cornelia Suskind's son Owen who, at three years old, was diagnosed with autism. They quickly watched their son withdraw and had great difficulties communicating with him. This was the early 90s where information about autism was not as readily available and the Suskinds were given very little hope. Then, one day, while watching Disney's The Little Mermaid, Owen seemed to mimic Ursula's singing "Just your voice." For a moment, the Suskinds held up hope, but it took years for Owen to speak again. This time, he spoke in a coherent sentence that showed them he had a level of understanding they did not know he had. While seeing his brother Walter sad, he suddenly explained to his parents that Walter was sad because he didn't want to grow up like Mowgli and Peter Pan.

At that point, the Suskinds started using Disney films to communicate with Owen. And, so he grew, learning valuable lessons about life through these animated classics. For example, as Owen grew older, he formed a Disney Club made of other developmentally challenged people where they could discuss the themes and how to apply them to life. While watching The Lion King, Owen explained that "when our parents can no longer help us, we have to figure out things for ourselves." And this would be an important lesson at the time as Owen was graduating college and would soon be moving into his own apartment. And, from there, how will he deal with situations not told within Disney movies, such as what is love beyond fairy tale love and how to deal with heart ache in worlds that end in happy endings.

In all honesty, until I watched this movie, I realized I had very little knowledge of what autism was. I knew that autistic children would suddenly have difficulty communicating, but didn't know why. It was fascinating hearing that it goes beyond not being able to communicating but that everything feels like a cacophany of sounds and visuals that become overwhelming. So, the documentary captures the triumph of the human spirit and that thinking beyond the box can bring good things.

The movie also conveys the love of a family and their willingness to do anything to help each other. While Ron and Owen are always lovingly with Owen, I also was touched by his brother Walter and his wish to be Owen's protector while expressing his fears of how that will look once he wants are gone. Its very real and candid and makes him very relatable.

I must also say that the animated transitions and storytelling within the film are stunning. At one point, Owen writes a story called "The Land of Lost Sidekicks," a fascinating view into how he sees himself as not the hero, but the plucky and humorous sidekick. The documentary illustrates the story in beautiful animation that makes you wish that they would produce the story on the whole as its own animated film.

As a Disney fan, I, of course, related to the film because I see all the themes he could draw from the films. I've even cited such themes myself in relating to my life. So, it touched my heart to see a person who has much more challenges than I do use them and communicate them with much more eloquence than I.

It also amazing to see how Owen also process information that he can't always glean from a Disney movie. After his girlfriend breaks up with him, he does not know what to do. In his story, he ends up creating a brand new villain called Fuzzbutch that challenges the sidekicks. This is just one challenge Owen will face in his life and, sometimes, he will fail, but you don't leave the film in despair. Somehow, you know, he will work things out. While he views himself as a sidekick, to us, he is the hero.


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