Owen Suskind had largely retreated into silence in the years after his autism began to manifest, around age 3. Three painfully mute years later, and after countless rapt hours spent watching Disney animated movies, a word broke through.
His parents, Ron (a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist) and Cornelia, initially thought he was asking for juice. But he wasn't. He was repeating back a line from "The Little Mermaid," a scene he often rewound to watch again, where Ursula the sea witch sings "Poor Unfortunate Souls." She sings, "It won't cost you much, just your voice!" ("juicervose")
It was just the first phrase from a Disney film that Owen would go on to mimic, but it was the first hint of his rediscovery of language. For the Suskinds, it was a life line back to their son. A few weeks later, Ron picked up a puppet of Iago, the parrot from "Aladdin," and had his first conversation with his son in years — albeit one doing his best Gilbert Gottfried impression.
Roger Ross Williams' documentary "Life Animated," playing this week at the Tribeca Film Festival, chronicles Owen's remarkable growth, aided by the colorful, underdog sidekicks of Disney movies.
The film, inspired by Ron Suskind's book "Life Animated: A Story of Sidekicks, Heroes and Autism," is both about Owen's impressive maturity and the power of movies, of stories, to connect.
The film, which will open in theaters July 8, has been a hit on the festival circuit where 19-year-old Owen has bounded down theater aisles, high-fiving cheering crowds. Williams won the directing award at the Sundance Film Festival, and the film picked up the audience award at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival.
Owen, the most ardent of movie lovers, is now a star himself.
"I've never experienced anything like I'm experiencing with this film," says Williams. "What I hope is that it not only gives parents hope, but it inspires everyone to realize the potential of people living with autism. There are all these gifts they have to offer to the world."
Speaking by phone from Los Angeles, Owen cheerfully greeted this reporter. (In Los Angeles, Owen visited the Disney Animation studios and met animators whose credits he knows thoroughly.)
"Hi Jake," said Owen. "That's also the name of the hilarious, awesome, cool, wise-cracking kangaroo rat from Disney's 'The Rescuers Down Under.'"
Owen had what's called "regressive autism," which only reveals itself once a child is a toddler. "Life Animated" captures Owen at a universal crossroads: He's graduating from school, moving out of his parent's house, finding (and losing) a girlfriend and getting a job at (where else?) a movie theater.
He speaks knowingly about why Disney films so resonate for him.
"I live in these characters and they live in me," he says. "It speaks to me. It helps me with my own life, to find my place in the world, to touch a lot of people."
At Tribeca, "Life Animated" has particular meaning. This year's festival has been partly defined by the backlash provoked by its programming of an anti-vaccination documentary, "Vaxxed," by a discredited British doctor who maintains that vaccinations can cause autism. (Among others, the Centers for Disease Control emphatically state that there's no link between the two.)
"Life Animated" is a joyful antidote to that episode, which culminated in Tribeca pulling "Vaxxed."
"It says something about the power of story for all of us, that we all need story for us to survive," says Williams. "It's kind of the lifeblood of human interaction. These Disney films are basically classic fables and Owen was raised on these fables."
Owen is a fan of recent Disney films like "Zootopia" Pixar's "Inside Out." But as Williams notes, "Owen likes the classics." Unquestionably, his favorite is "Aladdin."
"It's fun, magical, colorful, musical, kid-friendly, wacky, hilarious, show-stopping and entertaining," says Owen. "Mostly, it's about accepting who you are and being OK with that, show them that you are an unpolished gem and a diamond in the rough."
In "Aladdin," the title character — a young vagabond — learns that he doesn't need to be a prince to reach his dreams. "I'm not one either," adds Owen.
Researchers have begun studying the usefulness of affinity therapy to coax others out from their shell by tapping into their interests.
Owen's passion has affected others, too. Gottfried and Jonathan Freeman (voice of Jafar in "Aladdin") are among the Disney voice actors he's met. Freeman cried.
"He didn't see the meaning in the film that Owen saw," says Williams. "He said Owen opened his eyes to the beauty of the film. It's just amazing how the actual people who work on these films are transformed and enlightened after meeting Owen."
"Life Animated" has earned Owen's endorsement, too.
"It was a little different in my head," he says. "But it was beautiful on the screen."
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