Alicia McBride from the Hackney Picturehouse previews this week’s Discover Tuesdays presentation Life, Animated.
Ask any adult what they remember watching as children, and most will fondly recall Disney films. The way these films went on to shape their adult lives may be more intangible and harder to define – but not for Owen Suskind, star of Life, Animated.
At the age of three, Owen, a previously spirited boy, suffered a severe developmental disorder and lost his ability to speak overnight. There was little understanding of autism at the time, and doctors informed his heartbroken parents that he might never speak again. Then, a breakthrough: Owen quoted a line spoken by the parrot Iago in Aladdin. His doctor initially dismissed this as echolalia – the simple repetition of speech (much like a parrot) – but Owen’s father persisted in trying to reach his son. Using a hand puppet of Iago, he began to ask him questions, and found that when he used characters Owen understood and could relate to, Owen was able to respond. Suddenly the universal themes found in Disney’s work – themes of loneliness and loss – became key to Owen’s ability to communicate what he was feeling.
At the point when we meet Owen, he is in his early 20s and at college, hosting his own Disney Club, where he leads his fellow students in discussions about the emotions and adventures they are experiencing through the beloved characters they have grown up with. We learn that during Owen’s teenage years his father discovered a sketchbook full of drawings of Disney sidekicks, and Owen himself explains that he has always identified more with these secondary characters. It is touching and bittersweet that he fails to recognise the leading man he has become, or the inspiration he clearly is to his family. However, there is a natural concern for Owen’s future: there is only so much Disney films can teach, and as his brother rightly points out, Disney can’t even teach him about kissing with tongues, let alone anything further.
Despite the challenges the future holds, there is no doubt that Owen has grown into a hero, and that his achievements are a testament to people with autism and to the misunderstandings that still surround the disorder. The film brims with hope and the love of a family who never gave up. In a world that can be all too ready to dismiss anyone considered different, Life, Animated proves that patience, understanding and a sprinkle of Disney magic are sometimes all we need to create a leading role.