Review: Autistic boy’s mind opens up, thanks to Disney

Tom Long
The Detroit News

“Life, Animated” is like no other film you’ve seen. That’s because the life it follows is so unique, inspiring and heartbreaking.

Based on a book by the Pulitzer Prize-winnng journalist Ron Suskind, the film follows his son, Owen, in the here-and-now of his early 20s and, through home movie footage, from an early age. A perfectly normal baby, at about age 3 Owen loses the ability to communicate. The diagnosis: He’s autistic.

Dark years follow, years where the Suskind family struggles with how to reach the uncommunicative, lethargic Owen. The only thing the boy seems to want to do is watch VHS tapes of Disney movies.

Then one day Owen starts repeating a bit of gibberish. Ron struggles to make sense of it, then walks in on Owen watching a Disney movie; it turns out the gibberish is actually a mashed-together line from the film.

Owen can communicate through Disney.

This becomes the building block that leads to Owen’s eventual restoration, or at least resurrection. We follow the grown Owen — head tucked down, muttering lines from various Disney movies to himself — as he takes classes intended to help him cope in the outside world. The goal is he’ll eventually move into his own apartment in an assisted living complex.

Owen even has a girlfriend, Emily. And he has his older brother, Walt, who knows he will ultimately be responsible for Owen. The weight of this responsibility, on the aging Suskinds and Walt, permeates the film.

The Suskinds are obviously well-off, loving and resourceful parents, and Walt is a pillar of a brother. But Owen is Owen, and unlike Disney films, there can be no clear happy ending here. There are moments of joy, revelation, connection, sadness and hope, and the film is very, very moving.

Tom Long is a longtime culture critic.

‘Life, Animated’


Rated PG for thematic elements, and language including a suggestive reference

Running time: 89 minutes