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Disney films help a family reach their autistic son in 'Life, Animated'

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Owen Suskind in a scene from the documentary about his life called "Life, Animated."
The Orchard
Owen Suskind in a scene from the documentary about his life called "Life, Animated."

When Owen Suskind was a young boy, he suddenly became mute. He cried inconsolably. The one place he found solace was through Disney animated films.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 out of every 68 children has autism spectrum disorder. The disorder can manifest itself in a wide variety of ways.

When Owen Suskind was just about three years old, he suddenly became mute. He didn't sleep or eat. He cried inconsolably. 

But Owen did find solace in one realm: the animated films of Disney.

How movies like "Beauty and the Beast," "Aladdin" and "The Little Mermaid" helped Owen view and relate to the world is the subject of a book and now a new documentary titled "Life, Animated."

Take Two's Alex Cohen recently talked with Owen's father, journalist Ron Suskind, and filmmaker Roger Ross Williams about the documentary.

Interview highlights:

On how "The Little Mermaid" helped Owen regain his ability to speak

Ron Suskind: "We're up in the bedroom watching 'The Little Mermaid,' which we'd done at about 300 times at that point. And [Owen] had been murmuring gibberish for a few months before that, which we thought was a good thing, at least it's noise.

And he was saying 'Juicervose, juicervose, juicervose.' And [my wife] Cornelia thinks he wants more juice, but he doesn't... So here were are watching 'The Little Mermaid,' Ursula says, 'Just your voice!' 

Owen rewinds, the second time, third time, fourth time Cornelia grabs me and says, 'It's not juice!' I said, 'What?' She says it's not 'juice' it's 'just.' And I grab Owen and say, 'Just your voice!' And he says 'Juicervose, juicervose, juicervose!'  And it's the first time he's looked at me in a year... Cornelia starts to cry and says, you know, 'He's in there. He's still in there.'"

On Owen's next breakthrough moment at about 7-years-old, when his dad talked to him through the character Iago from the movie "Aladdin"

Ron Suskind: "It was an out-of-body experience, frankly. You know, it's like a window opens. We talked when he was two, in two-year-old speech, but he'd been lost to us for four years. And all of a sudden the window opens and he's right there in front of you. So you want to keep the window open and you'll do anything to do that. But also you're overwhelmed with emotion.

You know, all the things you couldn't say, like 'I love you,' and 'I'm your dad,' and 'It's going to be fine. Whatever this is, we're going to find our way out of the thicket, the forest, the darkness.' But then you're like if I do that, the window's going to shut, so clearly the voice is the key, stay in character. And I do stay in character... And then he responds to me in character as Jafar, the villain! And then it's like the fireworks go off, cause it dawns on me: we can converse in Disney dialogue."

On using original animation to tell the story from Owen's perspective

Roger Ross Williams: "Owen identifies with sidekicks in the Disney films and he starts to draw sidekicks and he creates a story of a little boy who gets lost in a land of sidekicks. And we brought that to life in full living color. And that point in the film you're ready to go even deeper into Owen's mind because the film is all from Owen's point-of-view. Owen is the storyteller. And when you see these films about people living with autism they're always from the outside looking in. And for me it was important to tell the story from the inside looking out."

"Life, Animated" opens July 1st in Los Angeles and New York.

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