There has not been a better documentary - or film in general - so far in 2016 than Life, Animated (opening today). It is sad, touching, uplifting and undeniably powerful portrayal of a family's love for their child, and a young man's journey to make sense of this world. Whether you have experience with autism or not, like the film's subject Owen Suskind, there are universally relatable themes found in his story, much like the Disney animated films that quite literally saved his life.
Ron and Cornelia Suskind are parents of two young boys, the youngest of which, Owen, was afflicted with "regressive autism" at age 3. As described by his parents, Owen as they knew him simply vanished, losing his ability to speak, not able to make eye contact and becoming completely introverted. It was devastating to the Suskind family who basically lost their son (Ron is a Pulitzer Prize winning author and this documentary is based on his memoir and hit book of the same name). Around the same time, Owen developed an obsession with animated Disney movies, but it would take several years until the Suskind's would learn just how this fascination would hold the key to reclaiming their son.
They learned that they could speak to Owen if in character as one of the many animated Disney characters populating their canon of movies. He would recite the next line of a film if one was given to him. In one heart-breaking account, Ron describes how he was able to have a conversation with his son by pretending to be Iago, the parrot from Aladdin, with a puppet on his hand while he hid under the child's bed. He kept telling himself "stay in character, stay in character" as he heard his son communicate with him for the first time in several years.
What they learned was not only was Owen able to communicate through Disney dialogue, but that he had pretty much memorized each and every one of the movies. Real-life events were related to movie characters or moments, like the time his brother was sad following a birthday party, and Owen told his mom that his brother "didn't want to grow up, like Peter Pan or Mowgli." This was not just Disney-speak, this was a complex thought and emotion, and showed that somewhere within the fog of autism, Owen was sharp and capable. It motivated the Suskinds to find their son and help him reach his fullest potential.
In the doc, the story of Owen's childhood is told to us, juxtaposed with the Owen of today, a bright young autistic man who is bringing hope and promise to others. He has formed a Disney club at his school, and it is there where he meets his first girlfriend, and the two are innocently adorable together. But Owen enters uncharted territory when the young girl breaks up with him just after he moves out and on after high school. Disney movies do not usually cover such ground, and never does a story not end happily ever after.
Owen's relationship with his parents is tear-jerking enough, but the dynamic with his brother is explored as well. As older brother tries to have an adult conversation with Owen, he asks his younger brother what - other than his lips - can he use to kiss a girl. He's trying to get him to say his tongue, but Owen's innocence shines through: With my feelings, he replies.
Interestingly, Owen does not only seem to love Disney movies, but particularly he is infatuated with the sidekick characters. He doesn't relate to the hero of each story, but rather the often magical, helpful side characters that help the hero along on his/her way. Ron discovers this, in a book of sketches by young Owen, featuring hundreds of drawings of these minor sidekick characters. Owen has even created his own fictional world, where he is sent as the savior of all of the sidekicks. After his real-life break-up, Owen creates a villain that inhabits this world, named Fuzzbutch, whose evil power is to "put fogs into people's heads and make them think that their world isn't great."
Never has autism been portrayed in such an accessible way to a mass audience than in Life, Animated. Disney films mean a great deal to a great deal of people, so instantly the audience has something in common with Owen. We see the horrific nature of this disorder and the impact it has on a family, but we are also educated to the fact that autism is not a death-sentence, that many of us could only hope to raise a child with Owen's constitution. When Owen takes the stage as a guest speaker towards the end of the film, you are simply not human if his words aren't direct hits to your soul.
Director Roger Ross Williams won an Oscar in 2010 for a documentary short subject (Music By Prudence) and he masterfully breathes life into Life, Animated. The story is enriched with wonderful animated sequences of young Owen's life, and his interactions with other Disney characters. But sometimes the subject shines through, and Owen Suskind is unforgettable in Life, Animated: A man who must overcome all odds, and who sees himself as the champion of sidekicks, but who is the undeniable, indisputable hero of this inspirational tale.
Run Time: 1 hours, 29 minutes, Rated PG
Based on the book by Ron Suskind
Directed by Roger Ross Williams (God Loves Uganda, Music by Prudence)
Opens locally on Friday, July 22, 2016 (check for show times).
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