Roger Ross Williams Reveals the Healing Power of Disney in His Autism Doc ’Life, Animated’: Awards Spotlight

The director of the Oscar-nominated film discusses Owen Suskind’s quest to take control of his life in the face of autism.

Roger Ross Williams

Roger Ross Williams

Daniel Bergeron

Documentarian Roger Ross Williams seized a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity with “Life, Animated,” capturing the remarkable story of Owen Suskind, a young man living with autism who learned to connect with the world around him by watching Disney animated films. Based on the book by Owen’s father, Roger Suskind, the film reveals the literal healing power of story. Owen not only learned to read by watching the credits of Disney films, but he also began communicating with his own family members by inhabiting the world of Disney’s animated characters.

“Owen is someone who was raised on myth and fable,” Williams said during our Awards Spotlight conversation. “These classic Disney animated films are really classic myths and fables that they’ve updated, and so Owen becomes really wise in the world on what it means to be human and to connect with other people.”

The book and the film have moved MIT, Cambridge, and Stanford to study “affinity therapy,” a phrase first coined by Roger Suskind and his wife Cornelia. The therapeutic method uses various frameworks — including movies — to encourage role playing and social interaction.

“Owen has sparked a movement of change within the autism community, which is really amazing,” Williams said.

“Life, Animated” is nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary and was previously nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, where Williams won the Directing Award. That festival holds a special place for Williams, as it helped him build the foundation for the career he has now.

One of the most remarkable aspects of “Life, Animated” is how Owen’s life ends up mirroring the arc of many beloved Disney characters.

“Owen’s story is also a very classic hero’s journey. Thrown out and cast away by society, Owen becomes the hero of his own destiny,” Williams said. “As you’re taken into his world and you’re taken on his journey, by the end of the film he emerges as a hero who has taken control of his own life.”

This year’s Awards Spotlight series is produced with help from our partners at Movies On Demand, who shot and produced the video interviews, and from Hollywood Proper, who provided location services for our Los Angeles shoots.

You can find all Contender Conversations at our Awards Spotlight homepage.

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