The first night Owen Suskind, now 25, spent alone in his own apartment, he opened up his laptop and put on Bambi. He watched the tragic scene in which the young buck's mother is killed. Bambi, isolated, cries out. Owen could relate. Though Owen's parents had not, thankfully, been gunned down by a hunter, he was by himself for the first time.
This moment is captured in the film Life, Animated, directed by Roger Ross Williams. The documentary, out July 1, tracks how Owen, who lives with autism, uses Disney movies as a handbook for his life. In this age when Disney is the constant subject of internet fodder, it's a reminder of how elementally important these movies are.
When Owen was around 3 years old, he lost the ability to communicate, but eventually, Disney helped him regain his voice. His father, journalist Ron Suskind, even began to speak with him in character as Iago, the parrot from Aladdin. (Ron has written a book about Owen, also titled Life, Animated. You can sample it in a piece for The New York Times Magazine.)
The documentary demonstrates how Owen finds solace in Disney. With help from artists at Mac Guff, the film brings to life The Land of the Lost Sidekicks, a tale Owen wrote about identifying with the movies' secondary characters. Williams' camera catches how Owen takes in the words of The Little Mermaid's crab, Sebastian, before graduating from Riverview School. "Well, it's like I always say, your majesty, children got to be free to live their own lives," Sebastian says. Life, Animated follows Owen as ventures into adulthood, gets his own place in an assisted living community, and experiences heartbreak when his girlfriend breaks up with him.
Williams, however, is also careful to show where Disney doesn't provide answers. (Sex, for example.) Refinery29 spoke to Williams about what he learned by following Owen.
What was your impression of Disney was before you started to work with Owen?
"I didn’t really grow up with Disney. I wasn’t against Disney...I hadn’t really had the deep dive into the Disney world. It was all new to me...what was interesting to me is Owen was really analyzing — in a very Joseph Campbell way — the meaning of storytelling and classic stories in our lives."
Did seeing these films through Owen’s eyes change your opinion of Disney?
"Absolutely. I realized by listening to Owen and through Owen that these stories really were a roadmap for life...I saw them, before Owen, as just sort of simple, silly animated films. I didn’t really think about the deeper meaning and the life lessons that you almost subconsciously learn from these films and the way you learn from any sort of classic story. It was definitely a learning experience for me."
Were those poignant moments, like when Owen watches Bambi, hard to get on film?
"Those moments were tough, because those moments were tough for Owen...When he broke up with [his girlfriend] Emily, he would watch these breakup scenes, the scenes of sadness in films. I remember there was a moment — it's not in the film anymore — when he was listening to a Michael Bolton song from [Hercules], and he was dancing around his world. He was expressing himself in such an unbelievably powerful, beautiful way to this Disney song. That’s the way he deals with the world. Even talking to Owen about difficult situations we find a moment in a Disney film that he can analyze and he can make sense of it."
How did you want to approach the fact that Owen learned how to connect to the world through Disney, but Disney can't always help?
"[It] was essential that we show the part of life where Disney did not help [Owen] cope with the world...A really important scene for me is when [Owen's brother] Walt is talking to Owen about sex. He’s talking to Owen about not just a Disney kiss, but using tongue. That’s Walt’s role in his life...for me, this film is about going beyond Disney as Owen moves into adulthood. To me, this is a coming of age film."
Do you think audiences can learn from Owen and the way he approaches these stories?
"Absolutely. That’s the whole reason I wanted to make this film is that Owen has so much to teach us. It’s not just Owen. Every person living with autism has a gift, they have an affinity. They have something that they could teach us. We, as a society, need to listen, need to not look the other way, not leave behind, not ignore people living with autism. They are a great gift. If we’re not tapping into that gift we’re losing out...Jonathan Freeman, the voice of Jafar, said that he and many of the creators of Disney who have met Owen say that they learned or understood more about their film from talking to Owen than they ever did. That was amazing. It brings them to tears when they are talking about that. Because Owen sees so much more...what we learn is that storytelling is a very powerful force in our lives and it’s something we need and it’s something that we need to survive."