Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Roger Ross Williams.
This is a touching, life affirming documentary that is a tribute to the human spirit and the importance of art and film in transforming lives.
This documentary centres around Owen Suskind, who was diagnosed with severe autism at the age of three. According to the doctors and specialists, the symptoms meant that he would be dependant upon others for the rest of his life. But his life was changed for the better through watching a lot of classic Disney animated features. Through endless viewing of these films, like Aladdin and The Little Mermaid, Owen learned to speak and communicate with others. The breakthrough came while watching Aladdin, and from then Owen learned to relate to the world through Disney cartoons. He even taught himself how to read by repeatedly watching the end credits.
The themes and positive morals of these family friendly films with their stories about pain, overcoming adversity and facing challenges, finding strength and courage, and the importance of friends and family helped him better understand the world around him and he developed a number of coping mechanisms.
Now in his 20s, Owen is learning to live away from home in his own unit in an assisted care facility. He even briefly found romance with Emily, another girl living at the facility. He is learning to lead an independent life. he has also started drawing his own comic books – The Land Of The Lost Sidekicks – which show his fascination with the secondary characters of those movies he loves.
He graduated from school and headed a Disney club for other autistic patients, leading a discussion about the films and their themes. There are special appearances from the likes of comedian Gilbert Gottfried, a Disney voice artist, who appeared at the Disney Club, much to the delight of the other patients.
The film also explores Owen’s relationship with his parents Ron and Cornelia, who were supportive and compassionate. His father Ron was a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist for the Wall Street Journal, and the author of a couple of books. His brother Walt is also fairly protective of Owen, but he worries about Owen’s future and what will happen after their parents die.
Life, Animated explores Owen’s life in compassionate and sympathetic fashion. Director Roger Ross Williams (tv series Undercover Boss, etc) has been granted extraordinary access to Owen as he follows him around as he goes about his life. This intimate portrait gives us insights into Owen’s world and the challenges he faces. Life, Animated is a blend of home movie footage, animation, intimate and personal interviews and brief snippets from Disney movies. And there is some animation created by Mathieu Betard, Olivier Lescot and Philippe Sonnier that illustrates Owen’s journey.
Williams is the first African American filmmaker to win an Oscar; he won for his documentary short Music By Prudence. Williams’s films have looked at outsiders, the challenges faced by people who feel outside the mainstream, and he seems to have an extraordinary empathy for them.
The documentary has been inspired by Ron’s own book Life, Animated: A Story Of Sidekicks, Heroes and Autism. There are some emotionally moving and heartwarming moments throughout as the film explores parental love and the sense of determination displayed by Owen. But the film is not all upbeat and positive as there are a few darker moments throughout. And there is a feeling that Life, Animated is also a tad manipulative at times.