Life, Animated – Roger Ross Williams
This unbelievable, yet true, life story all began when a three-year-old disappeared. Not the horrible found in the woods type of disappeared, but suddenly he was lost to his family, stuck within the confines of his own head. It seemed as if he was just inextricably “gone.”
When Pulitzer Prize winning writer, Ron Suskind and his wife Cornelia Anne Kennedy brought their suddenly mute and distracted son to the doctor, they heard what no one wants to even fathom. “Let me tell you about autism,” the doctor said, and with that, their hearts were broken. Ron Suskind was the type of man who had interviewed President Obama and wasn’t afraid to openly criticize his economic advisors and Treasury secretary in print. He had appeared on The Today Show and was a respected and best selling author. It seemed the man was fearless – until this. His fear that his son Owen would never speak again. That their only child was unreachable in their own midst. Owen was indeed, lost to them.
After pouring over the literature about autism and trying every trick and process they came across to try to reach Owen, they eventually, desperately started to give up. Before the Autism imprisoned him, Owen and his older brother, Walter, had always watched and re-watched the Disney animated movies, such as Aladdin, The Lion King, and Pinocchio as many children do. However, unbeknownst to his parents, like many other children, Owen had memorized every line of dialogue.
After about a year went by, Owen started to make little sounds and peeps, but his doctors dashed Ron and Cornelia’s hope by telling them that this was merely called, “echolalia,” and is just part of the Autistic spectrum. Owen’s silence continued to haunt the family for four more years, when the child noticed that one day, his brother Walter was looking sullen at the end of a birthday party. Owen regarded his older brother, who was sadly slouching outside at their picnic table, when suddenly, Owen turned to his family to say, “He doesn’t want to grow up like Mowgli and Peter Pan.” Clear as day, a whole sentence just came out of his face. “What just happened?!” his mother shouted. The family realized that they could now connect, reach out and express each other’s feelings through the language of hand drawn animated movies.
When director, Roger Ross Williams, heard the incredible news of his friend Ron Suskind’s son, he knew that the power of movies was real. The two had been friends for fifteen years and Williams had previously directed episodes of tv’s Undercover Boss, and the feature films, God Loves (2013), and Music (2010). When he found out that Suskind was already writing a book about his family’s unbelievable journey, Williams knew this story certainly had to be translated to film. Using the Interrotron, a camera invented by Earl Morris, Williams documented how Owen, now twenty three years old, could connect to the world through animated film. Even Gilbert Gottfried, the voice of Iago in Aladdin, one of Owen’s favorite characters, came aboard the project.
Using three layers of animation in the film, cut with home movies of Owen’s childhood, and Owen’s own drawings, Williams explored how the child would evolve, learn to navigate school and develop into the joyful, smart person he is today. “Disney had taken classic fables and updated them so the audience could impose their own meaning from it, depending on what they’re dealing with in their own life,” Williams noted. The editing process itself took about a year and Williams revealed that he learned so much about how cinema can absolutely affect people. “Owen is the only one who speaks directly to the camera, during the movie,” added Williams. And audiences all over the world can now truly connect with the once mute boy, now a real, live functioning man.