‘Life, Animated’ destigmatizes autism through Disney animated films: An interview with director Roger Ross Williams

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At the age of 3, Owen Suskind, a bright, smiling, joyful boy, stopped talking and interacting with the world around him. “It was like someone had kidnapped our son,” his father Ron recounts about Owen’s autism diagnosis in the newest documentary from director Roger Ross Williams. The Oscar-nominated film “Life, Animated” follows the Suskind family and its unique way of communicating with their son — Disney animated films.

“Owen used Disney animated films to really make sense of the world,” Williams recounted as what first drew him to this story. Indeed, in the movie, we watch Owen grapple with various topics such as growing up through “Peter Pan,” bullying through “Hunchback of Notre Dame” and independence through “Dumbo.” Clips from these movies and many other classics intercut the documentary in an attempt to bring the audience into Owen’s world.

Williams’ goal was to tell the story from Owen’s point of view. “He is the only one who talks directly to the audience and tells his story,” Williams said. “I interview him with a camera behind a television screen so he is talking directly into the lense of the camera.” This unique interview practice allows Owen to “look the audience in the eye and tell them his stories,” Williams explained. “He’s interacting with the audience who are, in turn, inside his head.”

Inside his head, the audience soon learns, Owen created his own stories where he and Disney sidekicks battle villains who represent bullying, depression and even autism itself. As soon as Williams heard Owen’s stories, he knew that animating them would become an integral part of the film.

These stories, entitled “Land of the Lost Sidekicks,” were animated for the documentary, and there are some of the most tear-jerking points of the film. Williams interweaves these animations as the audience watches Owen’s real life play out, intending to demonstrate that as “Owen’s character battles and defeats his villains, he emerges a hero and he is inspired to move out and conquer the world as his own person, just as you watch him do in real life.”

At first, Williams intended to tell the story of Owen’s childhood, but through the interview process a new story emerged — Owen’s adjustment to adulthood, one which is not easily contextualized by Disney movies. “Life is not a Disney film and Owen had to learn that — that people didn’t always live happily ever after,” Williams explained. It was important to him that audiences watch Owen deal with sex and heartbreak in ways that Disney movies do not address.

“Why is life so unfair?” Owen screams to his mother after his girlfriend of three years breaks up with him — a question we’ve all screamed before. This commonality is, in essence, what makes “Life, Animated” so compelling. Though Owen’s autism plays a large role in the film, Williams never wanted the story to be solely about autism. “I always saw it as a coming-of-age story and the person happened to have autism,” Williams said. “Owen was about to graduate, he was in love, he was becoming independent, and that’s something we all go through.”

As every child must eventually do, Owen learns how to fall and get back up again. In telling Owen’s story with such honesty and universality, Williams introduces the audience to his central message — those with autism are just like us. “Each of them has something to offer the world,” Williams explained. “I hope people come away with a better understanding of autism and the world, and even a better understanding of the power of story in all of our lives.”

The documentary, however, does not sugar coat Owen’s future. “I didn’t want the film to end on this positive note where you know ‘Oh he lives happily ever after’ because that’s not the way life is,” Williams noted. The director wants to make it clear that Owen will encounter difficulties. He can’t unlock his mail box; he struggles to find a job; he runs into his ex-girlfriend. For Williams, it was “important to show that there are challenges ahead for Owen but he is willing to take on those challenges, like all of us.”

“Life, Animated” is as much about every viewer as it is about Owen. It is a testament to the strength of family, the imagination of childhood and the power of story. Williams cannot emphasize it enough: “Owen is living a meaningful life and it’s not up to us to decide what that is. I’ve never met anyone more happy and content and open and honest about the world around him.”

We can all learn from Owen. When life kicks us down, sometimes all it takes is a hug from mom, some burnt chocolate cookies and our favorite animated characters to make everything seem a little bit brighter.

Contact Rebecca Gerny at [email protected].