Disney to the rescue: Movies heal in absorbing autism documentary, ‘Life, Animated’

Owen Suskin in the documentary, "Life, Animated."

Owen Suskind in the documentary, “Life, Animated.”

“Late Show” host Stephen Colbert was on the stage. So was comedian Gilbert Gottfried. But all eyes were on Owen Suskind, Friday night at the Wellmont Theater in Montclair.

It was opening night of the Montclair Film Festival, and its opening film, “Life, Animated,” had just screened. This is a documentary about Suskind, and he was participating in a discussion with members of his family, plus Gottfried (who makes a brief appearance in the film), director Roger Ross Williams and producer Julie Goldman. Longtime MFF supporter Colbert was moderating.

But, as I said, all eyes were on Suskind. Or, at least, it felt that way, because I think it would be impossible to watch “Life, Animated” and not be fascinated by him, and develop a great admiration for him.

As the thoroughly absorbing “Life, Animated” recounts, Suskind, who is now in his mid-20s, started showing symptoms of autism at the age of 3, and became almost totally uncommunicative. But he also was fascinated by Disney movies — “The Lion King,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Aladdin” and so on. One day, he seemed to be trying to say something and, in a great “eureka” moment, his parents realized he was repeating a line from “The Little Mermaid.”

Suskind’s obsession with Disney movies grew, but it was a healthful obsession. These movies helped him learn how to communicate — he’d memorize big chunks of dialogue, word for word. He even learned to read by trying to make sense out of the credits.

His father Ron says in the documentary that he felt he and his wife Cornelia were on a “rescue mission to get inside this prison … and pull him out.” Well, Disney movies proved to be the tool they needed.

Owen learned to live with his autism, and grew up into a sweet, sensitive teen. He even started a Disney club at his high school. (Gottfried, who voices the parrot Iago in “Aladdin,” visited the club one day, and that’s in the movie, too).

Gilbert Gottfried, left, with Stephen Colbert at the screening of "Life, Animated" at the Montclair Film Festival on April 29.


Gilbert Gottfried, left, with Stephen Colbert at the screening of “Life, Animated” at the Montclair Film Festival on April 29.

Owen also writes a story of his own, “The Land of the Lost Sidekicks,” inspired by his love of Disney sidekicks such as Iago and the crab Sebastian (from “The Little Mermaid”). “I am the protector of the sidekicks,” he writes. “No sidekicks gets left behind.”

A series of animated sequences, featuring Owen and his beloved sidekicks, is included in the movie, and helps make it even more magical (though Suskind’s real-life story is magical enough, already).

By the end of the movie, Suskind is living on his own and working in a Cape Cod movie theater. He also goes through a painful breakup with his girlfriend, and travels to France to speak at an autism conference. Throughout the movie, Ron (a journalist who previously wrote a memoir about raising Owen titled “Life, Animated: A Story of Sidekicks, Heroes, and Autism”) and Cornelia Suskind, as well as Owen’s incredibly patient older brother Walt, offer unwavering love and support.

One of the great things about this movie is that it doesn’t just tell Owen’s uplifting story, but gives you a good understanding of how autism works, and why the Disney movies were able to help him. (Others suffering from autism have been helped in similar ways; there’s actually a name for this, affinity therapy, and it’s an area of increasing interest for scientists trying to find a cure).

After Friday’s screening, Suskind took the stage to an immediate standing ovation, and charmed the Wellmont audience some more. He even reproduced some of the “Aladdin” dialogue, with Gottfried’s help.

Williams won the documentary directing award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival for his work on “Life, Animated.” The movie will be released in theaters on July 8, and I have a feeling a lot of people are going to be talking about it then.

The Montclair Film Festival continues through May 8; for information, visit montclairfilmfest.org.


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