Movie magic unlocks boy’s mind – Spielberg takes on daunting challenge to bring BFG to life

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This image released by Disney shows Ruby Barnhill in a scene from ‘The BFG’. (AP)
This image released by Disney shows Ruby Barnhill in a scene from ‘The BFG’. (AP)
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.

Steven Spielberg has rarely shied away from a challenge, from deadly sharks in “Jaws” to resurrecting dinosaurs in “Jurassic Park,” but when it came to creating a giant for “The BFG,” his latest film, the veteran director found the prospect “very daunting.”

“I don’t usually get intimidated by technology,” Spielberg told Reuters TV.

“I usually try and be at the forefront of technology, but this time I was in the wake of it. It took me a couple of weeks to get my sea legs to really realize how I could best utilize the medium of motion capture.”

“The BFG,” a Walt Disney film out in theaters on Friday, tells the story of Sophie, an orphaned girl who encounters the Big Friendly Giant (BFG), played by Oscar-winning British actor Mark Rylance and brought to life using motion-capture animation.

The title character of Walt Disney Co’s “The BFG,” based on British author Roald Dahl’s book of the same name, is no ordinary giant. He doesn’t eat children, unlike his fellow giants, and instead collects and creates dreams to spread through the country under the cover of nighttime.

“Every film of a book brings out a certain essential thing of the book,” Rylance said. “In film you need experience and plot. So it’s very faithful to the book, but it’s a different creature than the book.”

When Sophie, played by newcomer Ruby Barnhill, sees the BFG one night, he takes her back to his home in the land of giants out of fear that she might give away his secret.

The plucky girl quickly becomes a friend and confidante to help the kind, gentle giant from being bullied by his larger, uncultured brethren.

“The BFG” marks the 30th feature film by the 69-year-old Spielberg, who has won three Oscars over a career spanning five decades that includes “Indiana Jones”, “Schindler’s List” and “Saving Private Ryan.” Spielberg will be returning for the fifth installment of “Indiana Jones” with star Harrison Ford, due for release in 2019.

“I get really flattered when people like my films but I can never see the films the way they can,” he said. “I am never going to enjoy my own output the way other people can.” (RTRS)

By Jocelyn Noveck


This news has been read 5648 times!

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