- Associated Press - Thursday, June 30, 2016

The most heartbreaking moment in “Life, Animated,” an absorbing and ultimately exhilarating documentary about the journey of an autistic boy into manhood, is hearing his parents describe their feelings as they watched their healthy, happy 3-year-old deteriorate before their eyes, losing the ability to speak or interact.

“Somebody kidnapped my son,” thought his father, Ron Suskind.

“I am just going to hold you SO tight and love you SO much,” thought his mother, Cornelia Kennedy, “that whatever is going on will just go away.”

But once we wipe away the tears from that devastating moment when doctors diagnose little Owen Suskind with “regressive autism” - and raise the real possibility that he’ll never speak again - we’re in for a fascinating, sometimes excruciating, uplifting and yes, even funny ride, thanks to director Roger Ross Williams and of course Owen’s devoted and determined family.

As you know if you read Ron Suskind’s best-selling 2014 book, it turned out that the answer to unlocking Owen’s mind lay in the magic of movies - animated Disney movies, that is. The family already knew that watching these films over and over gave Owen a sense of peace and comfort.

But then one day, watching “The Little Mermaid,” the boy who hadn’t spoken in a year suddenly said, “Juice-er-vose.” His stunned parents thought he wanted juice, but he rejected it. Then they rewound the VHS tape. Owen was repeating a line from Ursula the sea witch: “It won’t cost you much. JUST YOUR VOICE.”

Ron Suskind recalls the moment with wonderment. “He’s still in there,” he remembers thinking. And from that moment on, the Suskinds were on a rescue mission, they say, “to get inside this prison of autism, and pull him out.”

The story goes on, in fits and starts, with amazing progress and terrible setbacks, too. After more years of disappointment, with Owen speaking mostly gibberish, he one day said to his parents about his older brother: “Walter doesn’t want to grow up, like Mowgli or Peter Pan.”

That unlocked another discovery: Owen was thinking complex thoughts. He just needed Disney characters to express them. His father began speaking to him as Iago, the parrot in “Aladdin” voiced by Gilbert Gottfried.

The film jumps back and forth in time, from Owen as a child to Owen as a 23-year-old, about to graduate from his special needs school (save some Kleenex for the graduation scene - don’t say we didn’t warn you!) and begin living on his own in an assisted-living apartment.

“How does it feel?” Ron asks Owen about the impending move. “A little nervous, a little exciting,” Owen says. Later, he describes what “independence” means to him: “Independence means great and fabulous!!”

A poignant subplot to the story involves Owen’s relationship with a fellow autistic student, Emily, and the tricky terrain of discovering love and sexuality. As brother Walt points out, romance in Disney animated films pretty much begins and ends with a chaste kiss, and that’s all his brother seems to understand.

” Full-on sex?” Walt says, in a very honest moment. “I have NO idea how to get at that.”

Owen’s relationship at one point causes him great pain, and one of the toughest moments of the film is when we realize how ill-prepared he seems to handle a sudden emotional blow. “Why is life so full of unfair pain and tragedy?” he wails.

But his parents also know that Owen has developed the tools to fall down and get up again. At one point, Owen is required to speak to an audience. It’s an impossibly tense moment as Owen approaches the podium, seemingly full of confidence, and then doesn’t speak for long seconds.

And then, we see signs of Owen’s durability. “I think he’ll be OK,” his mother says at one point. A simple thought, but it evokes more tears. Save some Kleenex for that, too.

“Life, Animated,” an Orchard release, is rated PG by the Motion Picture Association of America “for thematic elements, and language including a suggestive reference.” Running time: 89 minutes. Three stars out of four.

Definition of PG: Parental guidance suggested.

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Follow Jocelyn Noveck on Twitter at https://www.Twitter.com/JocelynNoveckAP

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