Life, Animated

The phrase heart-warming might have been invented for this documentary about an autistic boy who found a way out of his shell through the cartoon characters and bright movies of Disney.

Owen Suskind seemed a normal, lively baby until, at three, he almost overnight retreated into silence. His motor neurone development stopped and his family were baffled and devastated.

This was the early 1990s and knowledge of the autistic spectrum was not as widely  embraced as it is now, but Owen was seemingly lost.

The only comfort he got, recall his parents, was watching Disney movies. His father Ron is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and the film is based on Ron’s book about the experience. Ron wells up with tears even as he’s telling the story again, particularly when he remembers the breakthrough moment when Owen spoke to them for the first time in years.

They realised he had learned the dialogue to all his favourite Disney films – Aladdin, The Lion King, Peter Pan, The Little Mermaid. He could do all the funny voices and would hunch up into their shapes.

It’s obviously quite extraordinary and I don’t know how, but it goes unremarked that Owen’s older brother is called Walt.

But we see Owen now, as he’s running a Disney fan club and leading his fellow sufferers in his ‘[group home’ in discussions about themes from the movies, what lessons can be learned.

We find out Owen even taught himself to read through watching the films’ end credits. Through the colours and characters, the dialogue and the fairy tales, Owen somehow found a way to express his own emotions, found a world to which he could relate and where he could feel he fitted.

We follow the adult Owen as he takes his first, Bambi-like steps to getting his own apartment and his own girlfriend – as brother Walt sweetly points out, Disney movies don’t exactly prepare anyone for the realities of sex and intimate relationships.

There are also contrasting, darker animations which convey impressions of autism, how Owen must be feeling and seeing the world from inside his mind.

So, you know, I feel terrible telling you this, but…. I didn’t like it at all. I found it mawkish, manipulative, cruel on adult Owen, morally dubious. Disney obviously love it and gave up rare footage and clips for free. I’m sure it could be inspirational, life-saving to many who watch it, but I couldn’t stomach it, thought it was self-congratulatory, exploitative, unpretty, cringey.

There. Not supposed to say that, but I did. Get over it. Watch a Disney movie.

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