November 24, 2016 -- This documentary film tells the amazing story of how Disney animated films enabled a family to make connections with their autistic son and greatly improve his ability to function in society.
Owen Suskind seemed to be a normal child, until, nearing his third birthday, he quickly withdrew from the world and stopped talking. His parents Ron and Cornelia Suskind were devastated. It was like their son had been kidnapped. Owen was diagnosed with a form of autism, making him unable to make sense of all the visual and emotional cues from those around him, leaving him isolated.
The one thing that Owen and his older brother, Walt could do together was watch Disney animated films. After watching the Disney films, such as Bambi, Dumbo, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin, over and over again, Owen, after years of silence, finally spoke a few words, proving that he could make his own sentences. Ron finally figured out that his son was using dialog, stories and characters from Disney films to make sense of the world and to communicate with others.
The big breakthrough came when Ron using a puppet of Iago, a character from “Aladdin,” was able to have a conversation with his son, by imitating the distinctive voice of Gilbert Gottfried, who had performed the voice of Iago in the film. Later in the film Gottfried himself shows up at a Disney Club meeting (a club formed by Owen) to perform scenes live for Owen and his friends.
It turns out that unknown to everyone, Owen had memorized all the dialog from all the Disney movies, and had taught himself to read by using the movie subtitles. The cartoons were Owen's way of making sense of the world. Doctors theorized that the cartoon characters, with their exaggerated, simplified faces and expressions, made it easier for Owen to make sense of their facial and auditory cues. In turn, he was able to use these skills and this knowledge to make connections to people in the real world.
The film moves back and forth from Owen's childhood to his adulthood (he was over 20 years old when this film was made) showing the progress Owen has made, from being closed to the world, to getting his first job and living in his own apartment in a group home.
Unlike a Disney cartoon, however, Owen, despite his progress towards a normal life, does not live happily ever after. He has his own episodes of triumph, achievement, happiness, and he also suffers emotional pain. Disney films, his brother Walt notes in the film, do not teach a person much about romance, kissing or sex.
Owen wants those human connections, the same as most other people, but it is very hard for him to make those connections because of the way his mind works. One of the more surreal scenes in the film has Owen and his parents walking down a street in Paris all singing the “Be Our Guest” song from Disney's “Beauty and the Beast.”
The film also explores Owen's future. His parents hope that Owen will be able to live on his own. His brother, Walt, wonders if his future will include caring for his parents when they get older, as well as caring for Owen. There is nobody else in the family to help with these things.
This film is partly based on a book written by Ron Suskind. It provides a window into the life of a family affected by autism. I found the movie insightful and instructive. I hope it provides some hope for others affected by autism. This film rates a B.
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