Drawn to Disney: Roger Ross Williams’ ‘Life, Animated’ offers fascinating look at an autistic young man’s breakthrough

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“Absolutely fascinating documentary” are the three words that arise with some regularity about the films of Roger Ross Williams, starting with Music by Prudence six years ago and continuing through his latest, Life, Animated, which bows on July 1 via The Orchard.

Both docs deal, in different and surprising ways, with the healing powers of the arts. The first, which got the 2010 Academy Award for Best Documentary Short Subject—and made Williams, in effect, the first (and, to date, only) African-American director to win an Oscar—focused on Liyana, a band of severely disabled musicians in Zimbabwe, fronted by a 24-year-old singer-songwriter named Prudence Mabhena.

The other film traces the tentative baby steps into Independent Adulthood of Owen Suskind, an autistic 23-year-old who learned to talk, read, write and understand the world the rest of us live in by obsessively watching—to the point of memorizing—virtually the entire canon of Disney animated features, from Snow White to Frozen.

For Prudence, Williams trekked to another continent; Life, Animated is something he found in his own backyard—or, more precisely, his workplace. It was on ABC News’ “Nightline” that he first crossed paths with Owen’s father, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ron Suskind. “I was a junior producer there, and Ron was a correspondent. One day, he came up to me and said that the book he was then writing might make a good film.”

The book became a New York Times bestseller—Life, Animated: A Story of Sidekicks, Heroes and Autism—and covered in poignant detail the two decades that he, his wife Cornelia and older son Walter spent coaxing Owen out of his shell of silence by talking to him in the voices of Disney characters. At age three, Owen was diagnosed with Pervasive Development Disorder—his speech turned to gibberish, then to silence—and he spent his childhood parked in front of a VCR with Disney playmates for constant companions. Recycling their dialogue got him back on track.

At a Tribeca press conference for Life, Animated, Suskind said the family rallied to that signal. “We realized that we were going to have to live in the world of Owen and Disney. What was amazing was that he was using these cartoon characters as a code-breaker for the world that we were living in. After we figured that out, Owen actually became our guide, teaching us what that’s really about—what’s happening between Belle and Gaston—and that opened a world to us as to Owen’s capacities.”

The nervously happy ending that the book arrived at had Owen graduating from his special-needs school and preparing to leave the nest for an assisted-living complex.

Williams took it from there. “It was important to me to pick up where the book left off and really follow Owen around, not to be a retelling of the book—although the past is covered in flashbacks,” he notes. “When I started following Owen around, I realized that this would be a very transitional year in his life. He was graduating from school, becoming independent, moving into his apartment—and he had fallen in love. So many things that were universal were going on in his life. Everyone graduates and falls in love and breaks up and moves away from their parents for the first time. It was about capturing these universal things everyone could connect to.”

The prospect of starting a shoot without a finished script makes most filmmakers break out into a cold sweat; starting a shoot without any script at all is really working without a net, but this is Standard Operating Procedure for Williams.

“That’s the beauty of documentary,” he beams. “I think you know when you have an amazing character, and I knew immediately that Owen filled that bill. He was comfortable in front of the camera—completely oblivious to it—unselfconscious.”

Williams and his director of photography, Tom Bergmann, moved into the Suskind mainstream and managed to bond quite easily with Owen. “It didn’t take long either, because Owen just soon forgot the camera was there. He lives in the moment, and he’s in the moment about doing what he’s doing. That was a great thing about him.”

What was not so great about him was that, like many autistic people, he rarely establishes eye contact with the person he’s talking to. “I wanted Owen to tell his story directly to the audience, so when I interviewed him, I used an interrotron.”

An interrotron is the invention of Errol Morris, the documentarian who wielded it to Oscar-winning effect on 2003’s The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara. Basically, it’s two teleprompters connected to two cameras—a screen with a camera behind the screen, projecting the image of the interviewer to the interviewee. It tricked Owen, who grew up watching TV, into doing eye contact.

“Everyone else in the film is looking off-camera when they talk,” Williams noted. “No one else is looking the audience right in the eye and telling his story. Owen connects. You’re going into his brain. That’s the device I used to get people into his world.”

Williams also ran vintage Disney through the interrotron for Owen, who mimics not only the voices but the facial expressions as well. Once, while watching The Hunchback of Notre Dame, he contorts his eyebrows like the cartoon Quasimodo. “He could really feel it, and that is how he was reacting to the audience,” Williams points out. “Owen believes he is inside the Quasimodo movie, reacting to it.”

The documentary is fragmented with bits and pieces of Disney’s best: Pinocchio, Peter Pan, Aladdin, The Jungle Book, Bambi, The Lion King, Dumbo, The Little Mermaid, the whole menagerie—a testament to Disney generosity.

“It really wasn’t a collaboration,” producer Julie Goldman informed the press. “We went through the normal channels and licensed the footage from them, but we also had a leg up because the president of Disney Productions [Bob Iger] is on the board of The Sundance Institute. We were introduced by people there, and he came onboard and helped us every step of the way.” Disney exercised no editorial control, she stressed. “They were very supportive, but we’re very much an independent production. They wanted to make sure it stayed that way and it’s not co-opted as a Disney film, which it is not. But they’re excited about it, and they’ve been terrific.”

Williams was likewise pretty excited by “the prospect of working with the library of Disney animated film and constructing a story from that, but what really intrigued me was Owen’s sidekick story—an original story that he created and drew himself.”

It seems the people that stuck to the roof of Owen’s mind were not the heroes or the heroines but the second-banana characters—the sidekicks—and he concocted a plot that incorporated all of his personal favorites like Iago, Jiminy Cricket, Sebastian, Timon and Pumbaa into one big clambake called The Land of the Lost Sidekicks.

Williams brought Owen’s script to animated life and not with the help of Disney elves, either. “I wanted a different type of animation for it because I wanted it to be Owen’s vision. This was like going into Owen’s head and the world that he lived in.”

That decision took the director abroad. “I think the French do the best work in TV animation, so I went to this company in Paris called Mac Guff Ligne that did Despicable Me. The owner there took this on as his personal project and allocated me a group of ten really brilliant young French animators who did the work.”

Owen’s love of Disney works manifests itself in several ways—in the meticulous way he maintains his library of films and shares them with likeminded classmates whom he has organized into a kind of Disney club for young adults. At one such gathering caught by the camera, a couple of Star Sidekicks showed up in the flesh: Jonathan Freeman, who voiced the evil royal adviser, Jafar, and Gilbert Gottfried who voiced his strident parrot, Iago, in Aladdin. Gottfried even appeared for the Tribeca opening and, since Freedman was busy at the moment reprising Jafar on Broadway, his overripe menace was delivered with relish by Owen, in a scene with Gottfried.

The film runs a tidy 91 minutes and hews to a pretty steady through-line. Williams keenly laments losing an outing to Boston, where M.I.T. scientists played Disney animated films to Owen and saw what chemical reactions happened in his brain.

Before this test, he says, the common belief was that “people living with autism lack empathy. There is a part of the brain where empathy comes from, and they saw that it actually lit up—that autistic people were more empathetic, not less. It was a kind of breakthrough. Now Stanford, Cambridge and M.I.T. are doing a study. Because of the book and the work that Ron has done, they’re studying affinity therapy by using affinities to tap into an autistic person’s mind and reach them.

“It was an incredible sequence, but we had to cut it. That will be a DVD extra.”

The last word at the press conference went to—or, rather, was taken by—Owen himself. “I feel all the love in this room today by everyone.” Yes, he got it from the movies—namely, The Sword in the Stone... from Disney, of course.