Life, Animated Director: Roger Ross Williams
Writer: Ron Suskind (based on his book)
Distributor: A&E IndieFilms and Motto Pictures
Rated PG | 89 Minutes
Release Date: July 1, 2016
Any doubt that Disney animated films transform children’s lives for the better need only watch Life, Animated, a superb new documentary that tracks the childhood and young adulthood of Owen Suskind, a young man with autism.
Owen uses these movies – among them Aladdin, The Little Mermaid, and Peter Pan – to not only learn to discover his metaphorical voice, but also his literal one. Life, Animated proves that the meaning of a life should not be evaluated by anyone but the person himself or herself. And, for Owen, it came alive in living color via The Walt Disney Company.
I recently attended and presented at the Autism Society Association’s national conference, in which Life, Animated was screened. The documentary is in the early stages of limited release, but has already garnered a plethora of positive reviews for its accurate and non-condescending portrayal of an individual on the autism spectrum who uses his hyperinterest in Disney for the better. Needless to say, this was an ideal and relevant audience to share the movie. Ron Suskind, Owen’s father and a recognized journalist for his books and pieces for the Wall Street Journal, introduced the film and later offered commentary through facilitating a Q&A session following the screening. The anticipation for the movie was sky high and, for this viewer at least, had his expectations met and exceeded.
Life, Animated, as directed by Oscar-winner Roger Ross Williams (Music by Prudence), follows Owen’s journey, from infancy to his early 20s. He was just an ordinary child part of a loving family. They watched Disney films together, played in the backyard, and Owen would reenact the swordfight between Peter Pan and Captain Hook with his father. But his “normal” development suddenly regressed to a point where he no longer talked. An autism diagnosis, especially in the early ’90s, was not yet in the common discourse. Ron and Cornelia, Owen’s parents, had seemed to lose their younger child. But one thing united them, and Owen’s older brother Walt (aptly named), together: Disney movies. Owen gazed into the television screen, constantly replaying scenes from the VHS tapes. One moment resonated with him, which sets up the rest of the documentary. He would rewind again and again to the scene from The Little Mermaid when Ursula telling Ariel that she needs “just your voice.” So it turns out, Owen’s incoherent blabbering of a common phrase was, in fact, reciting Ursula’s line. A poignant moment, indeed, and the Suskinds quickly realized that Owen was using Disney movies to channel his thoughts. A touching moment finds Ron utilizing an Iago puppet, talking in Gilbert Gottfried’s screeching voice, to see if he could get through to Owen. And he did, as their first conversation together involved reciting “Disney dialogue.” So the journey began. Below is a clip from Good Morning America’s YouTube channel that shows the media’s coverage of the documentary.
Life, Animated unflinchingly addresses the trials of Owen’s autism, including the family’s drive for him to live independently (in an assisted living complex) at around age 23. He formed a Disney club in his schooling situation, found love with another individual on the spectrum, and could even work part-time. But the challenges never stopped. The idea of mortality, directly discussed, comes into the picture as Walt imagines a world where he must be responsible for his little brother, as their parents won’t be around forever to take care of Owen. While Owen can communicate his feelings and issues, the difficulties associated with living with autism never cease to play into daily situations. We see the highs and the lows, but most of all the humanity. Much like the Disney characters that he constantly refers to, these are full-fleshed characters.
Disney posters adorn Owen’s apartment and his shelves are littered with dozens of VHS tapes. Though a conversation about working for Disney interestingly never enters the conversation, he has had the opportunity to meet many of the vocal actors. He developed a friendship with Jonathan Freeman, the voice of Jafar from Aladdin. The two recite lines between Jafar and Iago for Owen’s Disney club, delighting the class. Later Jafar’s bird-brained sidekick surprises all. Gottfried himself reenacts his comedic role for all, even commenting that Owen’s impression of Iago is comparable to his. These joyous moments remind us of Disney’s significance in bringing hope to all types of folks, with or without autism. That Ron and Cornelia have been such powerful and wonderful advocates for their son, now a self-advocate himself, only enhances our love for this family on screen.
At a brisk 90 minutes, Life, Animated covers the story of one person with autism in an accessible and authentic way. By no means does it negate the complications imposed by autism. We see the variety of folks on the spectrum, and that no two people are alike. Owen’s story, as Ron indicated to the crowd, is one in a million. Not special, but rather that his story is just as unique and valuable as the millions of others who have autism. Life, Animated manages to transmit this theme, too. One family’s story of hope for their son to have the same opportunities as others his age is a common victory we all want to see him achieve. It’s an underdog story, yes. However, it’s also one that shares how Owen views himself as a “sidekick.” He most relates to Disney’s supporting stars, the ones who help the hero. Little may Owen recognize is that we all see him as the protagonist, not merely a supporting star. The documentary, never cloying nor overly buoyant, strikes a realistic vibe in the midst of the magic that Owen is most inclined to watch.
Life, Animated is a must-watch film for a few reasons. For one, it serves as an educational experience for those not personally affiliated with those on the spectrum. As an entree to understanding the developmental disorder, it can inform audiences of one person’s journey. Besides the compelling subject matter, it’s a well-crafted documentary devoid of veering into the controversies associated with autism diagnoses. Life, Animated carries across the compassion that we all seek in our lives, and the worth of all. Disney helped Owen in finding his voice, yet in the end Life, Animated reminds us that all voices – no matter how they come across – should be heard and appreciated.
This is Brett Nachman, signing off. Follow me on Twitter for alerts of new editions of Disney In Depth, released on the first and third Thursdays on Geeks of Doom.