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'Life Animated': An Autistic Boy's World Of Wonder Brought To Screen Via The Magic Of Disney

16/12/2016 14:41 GMT | Updated 16/12/2016 14:44 GMT

*****

If there were an Oscar for most intimate, challenging and inspiring true-life tale, the gong would be going straight to 'Life, Animated' - the story of Owen Suskind, and his journey back to his loved ones from autistic silence, through his love of Disney.

What begins as a film of unmitigated despair and fear soon becomes a documentary of the power of a loving family and a child's imagination.

Owen Suskind's life seemed permanently limited by his diagnosis, at the age of three, with regressive autism - which meant, among other things, complete loss of speech. His parents, whose devotion to Owen is one of the most moving aspects of the film, thought there was nothing to be done, but dedicated themselves to the care of their little boy, whose sweet face is captured in moving home footage, and whose confusion is conveyed in beautiful animation entirely in keeping with the narrative.

But the Suskinds had reckoned without the power of animation on a child's psyche, specifically that of the wonder of Disney. One day, after months and months of silence, Owen spoke. In the words of his favourite screen character. His parents replied. And his door to the world opened once more.

The film, made by family friend Roger Ross Williams, charts unflinchingly the challenges faced by Owen as he prepares for life post-graduation, but asks far more profound questions too - does it matter if parents conspire in a Disney-fuelled pantomime if their child feels secure and loved? How do you equip someone like Owen for an independent adult existence, without damaging his beautifully intact sense of wonder? And what constitutes a 'meaningful' life anyway?

The most haunting part of the film, for me, was Ron Suskind's discovery of a colouring book Owen completed as a teenager, freshly thrown out of a school that had given up trying to help him. Owen had faithfully drawn all his favourite Disney characters, and Ron realised there was a pattern to the series - "They were all sidekicks," he remembers. "And Owen had described himself, 'Protector of the Sidekicks - no sidekick left behind."

I spoke to Ron about this haunting moment, and agreed this was a turning point for the family in real life, too. "This was a huge moment, when we went on a completely new path with Owen, and for ourselves," he remembers.

"He saw what the world thought of him, which broke my heart.

"But he realised something profound, that we're all really sidekicks, helping others fulfil their destiny - that there is no one working definition of hero, and heroism becomes a choice every single day."

Ron's comments underpin the heart of the movie, illuminated by Owen's constant sweetness, even as he faces a personal disaster in the course of filming, that the cameras don't fight shy of recording.

"His pain summoned his greatest capacity in response - and it was extraordinary," says Ron.

This film is for all fans of Disney, and all students of life, animated and awe-inspiring.

'Life, Animated' is now on release at selected UK cinemas. Click here for info.