During the opening credits of "Life, Animated," we see old home video footage of a toddler kneeling up against a TV set like he wants to crawl inside it. On the screen, Mickey Mouse dances in a red coat and pointed hat as the Sorcerer’s Apprentice in a scene from "Fantasia."
Disney's role in the lives of children around the world is indisputable, but the company would be hard-pressed to find a better example to be proud of than the autistic subject of "Life, Animated," an uplifting documentary featured at this year's Sundance Film Festival.
Owen Suskind was a completely normal child up until the age of 3, watching Disney films with his older brother Walt and, in another memorable home video clip, battling his father, Ron, while pretending to be Peter Pan in his front yard. But according to Owen's father, soon after the clip was filmed, "someone kidnapped our son."
That "someone" was autism. Owen's growth and development receded, and the boy seemed to disappear into a world where he refused eye contact with his family members. Consultations with doctors not only diagnosed the problem but also confirmed the threat: There was a good chance Owen would never speak again.
Of course, the heartbreak of Owen's story is muted by director Roger Ross Williams, who interchanges interviews and home video footage with present-day images of a grown man of 23. He has dark, curly hair, and looks a little like a grown-up Kevin Arnold. His mannerisms are a little strange, but his conversation is thoughtful, and he appears to be preparing for some kind of graduation.
Owen Suskind emerged from the box autism put around his mind, and according to "Life, Animated," Disney was a big reason why.
Williams shares Owen's story through interviews with his parents and brother while showing us the world he lives in as an adult. Ron references his son's landmark breakthroughs, such as when he realized Owen was trying to quote dialogue from "The Little Mermaid," or how after seeing his brother in a sad state after a birthday party, Owen observed that "Walter doesn't want to grow up," just like Mowgli or Peter Pan.
Disney characters and a profound talent for memorizing dialogue gave Owen a way to communicate, and in present-day footage, we see a young man who is able to carry on largely normal conversations. Owen also has a girlfriend, Emily, and is preparing to move into an assisted living apartment where he can develop adult independence.
The present-past toggling mutes some of the tension of Owen's story, but it is still moving to hear about his trials, and Williams takes us through some of Owen's adult challenges as well. Often, the focus shifts towards Walt, who realizes that once their parents are gone, Owen will be his responsibility. In one charming scene, Walt describes his efforts to help Owen understand his adult feelings when all he's been exposed to are animated kisses quickly followed by rolling credits.
Throughout the film, more so in its first half, "Life, Animated" interjects creative animated sequences to re-create scenes from Owen’s childhood, or to illustrate stories Owen has written on his own. They help to punctuate and pace the film and do a nice job of plugging into Owen's spirit and personality.
It all leads to a product that is moving and inspiring, regardless of whether you are a Disney fan. When Ron and his wife Cornelia contemplate their son's limitations, they eventually conclude, "Who decides what a meaningful life is?" "Life, Animated" is a touching answer to that question.
"Life, Animated" is not rated but sits squarely in soft PG territory for brief profanity.
"Life, Animated" is not rated, but would likely be PG; running time: 89 minutes.
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. Find him online at facebook.com/joshterryreviews.