"Life, Animated is a story of triumph; Owen is a high-functioning adult and we join him as he takes his first steps into independence"

Can you imagine watching as one day your son slowly starts to recede from the world? Going from lively and chatty to silent and withdrawn. This is the reality of the Suskinds whose three-year-old son Owen seemed to vanish before their eyes. “[It was] like we were looking for clues of kidnapping”: recalls Owen’s mother Cornelia. The kidnapper in this case was autism — a condition that turned Owen’s world into a garbled mess. Four years passed and there seemed no hope of retrieving the son they had lost. Then a breakthrough occurred and Owen began to communicate through dialogue from the Disney films he and his brother watched religiously.

Life, Animated is the story of how these wonderful children’s films helped that lost boy find a way back to language and the world. Through evocative weaving of sequences from the Disney films themselves with verité footage of Owen’s contemporary life, this coming-of-age documentary shows how Owen, now 23, came to create a framework for relating to the world. It is a deeply moving and uplifting documentary but its true achievement is in its educational value.

Autism is a widely misunderstood condition and as we watch Owen learn to understand the world, we too learn to understand what life is really like for an autistic person. This documentary thrives in the specially created animated sequences, where we see Owen’s parents struggle in the early days but more so in the depictions of the world from young Owen’s perspective. We hear how garbled and imposing the cacophony of incoherent sounds can be. It allows us not only to sympathise but also appreciate the struggle.

With the help of Iago from Aladdin, Sebastian from The Little Mermaid and more, we see how empathising with these characters and their stories and projecting them on real world scenarios helped Owen bring things back into view. Now an adult, he continues to hold these friends close and use them in times of need. However, the framework Disney provides is limited and we watch as older brother Walt struggles to broach topics that exist far outside their purview. — Sex being a big one and Walt joking that “Disney porn” may be the only way forward.

Life, Animated is a story of triumph; Owen is a high-functioning adult and we join him as he takes his first steps into independence. Our hero overcomes huge obstacles and we rejoice with him but all is not as rosy as it seems and the glossy veneer of this heart-warming tale is broken in moments. In interviews with Walt we see the hardship and struggle predicted for the future. However, for now all is ok, Owen has his first job and is taking strides into an adulthood his parents never thought he would have. For now at least, anything (even a breakup) is surmountable with the help of a little love and understanding and a good Disney film.