Family

‘Life, Animated’ shares a family’s true fairy tale

In an undated handout photo, a still from the documentary “Life, Animated.” The film adaptation of Ron Suskind’s 2014 memoir about his autistic son Owen’s breakthrough thanks to his identification with Disney’s animated characters, includes the animation that helped them communicate. (The Orchard via The New York Times)
In an undated handout photo, a still from the documentary “Life, Animated.” The film adaptation of Ron Suskind’s 2014 memoir about his autistic son Owen’s breakthrough thanks to his identification with Disney’s animated characters, includes the animation that helped them communicate. (The Orchard via The New York Times) NYT

When documentary director Roger Ross Williams read early galleys of his journalist friend Ron Suskind’s book Life, Animated, a 2014 memoir about his autistic son Owen’s breakthrough thanks to his identification with Disney’s animated characters, he knew he wanted to tell the story on film and would have to use animation to do so.

“It was essential,” said Williams, who acquired the documentary rights to the book from Suskind. “My whole concept for the film was about bringing Owen’s inner world to life.”

Adapting Life, Animated into a movie (opening Friday) that includes more than five minutes of animation with Disney characters rendered by non-Disney animators would require Disney’s blessing.

The company is known for being protective of its characters and image. It helped that Kingswell, an imprint of Disney, published Suskind’s book, which includes extensive use of the company’s lyrics and dialogue, as well as Owen’s drawings of Disney characters.

The book details how Owen, after being given a diagnosis of regressive autism at 3, lost the ability to hold intelligible conversations. But he slowly learned language and emotional dynamics by studying animated sidekicks in Disney movies.

The Suskind family — Ron Suskind; Owen’s mother, Cornelia; and his older brother, Walt — would speak to him using dialogue from those movies, and he would respond in kind. In addition to Owen’s artwork, the book includes his own Disney-inspired story, Sidekicks, which features a young boy not unlike himself.

Disney, which owned the rights to the characters in the book and was thinking about making a film adaptation, considered different ways — including big-budget features — it might adapt the book into a scripted film, said Sean Bailey, the president for motion picture production at Walt Disney Studios.

The company was comfortable allowing its characters in a nonfiction film by Williams.

Williams, an Academy Award winner for the documentary short Music by Prudence, and Bailey shared ties to the Sundance Institute. Bailey is a trustee of the organization, which has supported some of Williams’ films, and the two met in Bailey’s office in the spring of 2014.

After a follow-up presentation by Williams and his producer, Julie Goldman, to Bailey and several department heads, Disney agreed to take a hands-off approach to the project and the use of its characters.

This agreement required “a little bit of a leap of faith,” Bailey admitted, especially considering Williams’ vision for the film was still “percolating,” as he put it.

While filming and interviewing the Suskind family, Williams enlisted the French animation and visual effects company Mac Guff to bring Owen’s art to life. Mac Guff was chosen for its ability to create animation with a sense of romance, he said, because of Owen’s affinity for pre-computer-generated animation.

Disney is saying, ‘We trust you the viewer to see who we are through the eyes of this person who turned their movies into a vessel to make his way in the world.’

Author Ron Suskind

“It had to have its own authentic feel to it,” Williams said. “They are Owen’s interpretation of these characters.” (The film also uses clips from Disney films like Peter Pan, Aladdin and The Lion King, for which the production paid a licensing fee.)

The animated sequences show a 3-year-old boy being swept into an abstract world without dialogue as he’s chased by an evil force. He finds shelter with sidekicks who are recognizably Baloo, the bear from The Jungle Book; Sebastian, the crab from The Little Mermaid; and several others.

With Life, Animated, Suskind said, “Disney is saying, ‘We trust you the viewer to see who we are through the eyes of this person who turned their movies into a vessel to make his way in the world.”

And yet this isn’t necessarily a sign of change at the company.

“I wouldn’t read any corporate policy implications into this,” Bailey said.

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