Directed by: Roger Ross Williams.
Based on the Book by: Ron Suskind.
Movies can have a unique power – can help you see the world in a different way, and can even help you make sense of that world. We all have movies like that – movies that seem to be speaking directly to us and our experiences. But for Owen Suskind, those feelings go even deeper. When he was three, he “vanished” as his father explained it – that was when Owen was diagnosed with autism, and the formerly bright, happy child retreated into himself. He started to come out of it – as much as someone with autism can anyway – years later, and the vehicle that Owen to do that was Disney movies. He had seen, and memorized, every Disney animated film ever made – and in many ways had internalized them. For a while, the only words Owen would speak was Disney dialogue – but slowly he spoke more and more. During the documentary Life, Animated Owen is 23 years old – and he is preparing to move out of his group home, into an apartment by himself. He’s even looking for a job. Disney movies are still how he relates to the world – and it’s a world that is more complex than perhaps we expected.
Based on the book by Owen’s journalist father, Ron Suskind, Life, Animated is a touching documentary, which at times borders on the manipulative, without ever quite tipping over into the saccharine. Strangely, Ron Suskind is the least interesting of the family members in the film – because everything he says seems so practiced and rehearsed – like he’s told all these stories a million times before (and perhaps he has). It’s far more intriguing to see Owen himself, talk about his childhood, talk about what Disney movies means – and the lessons they teach him. Or his mother talk of her fears for her son as a child. Most interesting may be Owen’s older brother Walter – who opens up about his fears of what will happen when his parents die, and he’ll have more responsibility for Owen than ever. It’s also through Walter that the film starts to address the limitations of Owen’s Disney education. Walter tries, during a game of mini-golf, to talk to Owen about sex (Owen does have a girlfriend – but they haven’t gone anywhere close to that far) – but Owen seems oblivious to what Walter is trying to say. Later, in an interview with the filmmakers, Walter expresses some frustration – “In a Disney movie, aside from the last kiss, they don’t really address relationship or sex” – aside from showing Owen Disney porn, he doesn’t know how to proceed. One of the social workers who work with Owen, preparing him to move out on his own, puts it’s more bluntly “Life isn’t a Disney movie”.
These elements are, I think, necessary for Life, Animated to work as well as it does. Without them, the film would be an “inspirational” documentary, about one man’s triumph over autism. Life, Animated is still inspirational – but it’s more grounded in reality than one would expect – Disney movies have certainly helped Owen, but they only go so far – the rest will be up to him, and what happens to him, will have little to do with Disney movies.