NEW YORK - Owen Suskind had largely retreated into silence in the years after his autism began to manifest, around age 3. Three painfully mute years later, and after countless rapt hours spent watching Disney animated movies, a word broke through.
His parents, Ron (a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist) and Cornelia, initially thought he was asking for juice. But he wasn't. He was repeating back a line from "The Little Mermaid," a scene he often rewound to watch again, where Ursula the sea witch sings "Poor Unfortunate Souls." She sings, "It won't cost you much, just your voice!" ("juicervose")
It was just the first phrase from a Disney film that Owen would go on to recite, but it was the first hint of his rediscovery of language. For the Suskinds, it was a lifeline back to their son. A few weeks later, Ron picked up a puppet of Iago, the parrot from "Aladdin," and had his first conversation with his son in years — albeit one doing his best Gilbert Gottfried impression.
Roger Ross Williams' documentary "Life Animated," which opens Friday, chronicles Owen's remarkable growth, aided by the colorful, underdog sidekicks of Disney movies. The film, inspired by Ron Suskind's book "Life Animated: A Story of Sidekicks, Heroes and Autism," is both about Owen's impressive maturity and the power of movies, of stories, to connect people across daunting divides.
The film has been a hit on the festival circuit where 25-year-old Owen has bounded down theatre aisles, high-fiving cheering crowds. Owen, the most ardent of movie lovers, is now a star himself.
"I've never experienced anything like I'm experiencing with this film," says Williams. "What I hope is that it not only gives parents hope, but it inspires everyone to realize the potential of people living with autism. There are all these gifts they have to offer to the world."
Speaking by phone from Los Angeles, Owen cheerfully greeted this reporter. (In Los Angeles, Owen visited the Disney Animation studios and met animators whose credits he knows thoroughly.)
"Hi Jake," said Owen. "That's also the name of the hilarious, awesome, cool, wise-cracking kangaroo rat from Disney's 'The Rescuers Down Under.'"
Owen had what's called "regressive autism," which only reveals itself once a child is a toddler. "Life Animated" captures Owen at a universal crossroads: He's graduating from school, moving out of his parents' house, finding (and losing) a girlfriend and getting a job at (where else?) a movie theatre.
He speaks knowingly about why Disney films so resonate for him.
"I live in these characters and they live in me," he says. "It speaks to me. It helps me with my own life, to find my place in the world, to touch a lot of people."
In his bestseller, Suskind writes of Owen finding "a language and a tool kit" in Disney films that gave him fables to live by.
"He starts with the moral — beauty lies within, be true to yourself, love conquers all — and tests them in a world colored by shades of grey," wrote Suskind. "It's the sidekicks who help him navigate that eternal debate, as they often do for the heroes in their movies."
"It says something about the power of story for all of us, that we all need a story for us to survive," says Williams. "It's kind of the lifeblood of human interaction. These Disney films are basically classic fables and Owen was raised on these fables."
The normally guarded Disney approved the use of clips from its films for "Life Animated," though it has no involvement in the movie's release. (It's being distributed independently by Orchard.) Suskind's book, however, was published by an imprint owned by Disney.
Owen is a fan of recent Disney films like "Zootopia" and Pixar's "Inside Out." But as Williams notes, "Owen likes the classics." He identifies most with sidekicks and has filled sketchbooks with loving drawings, writing: "I Am the Protekter of Sidekicks." His favourite movie, unmistakably, is "Aladdin."
"It's fun, magical, colorful, musical, kid-friendly, wacky, hilarious, show-stopping and entertaining," says Owen. "Mostly, it's about accepting who you are and being OK with that, show them that you are an unpolished gem and a diamond in the rough."
In "Aladdin," the title character — a young vagabond — learns that he doesn't need to be a prince to reach his dreams. "I'm not one either," adds Owen.
Researchers have begun studying the usefulness of affinity therapy to coax others out from their shell by tapping into their interests. Owen's passion has affected others, too. Gottfried and Jonathan Freeman (voice of Jafar in "Aladdin") are among the Disney voice actors he's met. Freeman cried.
"He didn't see the meaning in the film that Owen saw," says Williams. "He said Owen opened his eyes to the beauty of the film. It's just amazing how the actual people who work on these films are transformed and enlightened after meeting Owen."
"Life Animated" has earned Owen's endorsement, too.
"It was a little different in my head," he says. "But it was beautiful on the screen."