“Life, Animated” is an A&E Indie Films documentary directed by Roger Ross Williams about Owen Suskind who, at the age of three, ceased communicating with those around him until he was able to reconnect through Disney animated movies. Based on the best-selling book by his father, Ron Suskind, and the winner of a Sundance Film Festival award, “Life, Animated” is a beautifully composed, informative, emotional and triumphant documentary.
The film opens with home movie footage: Owen with his father and brother at bedtime, Owen sword fighting with his father. But at age 3, Owen’s speech and comprehension, along with his coordination and motor skills, start to deteriorate, and eventually he is diagnosed with regressive autism. Years go by, and during that time Owen seems to only be calm when watching Disney movies like “The Little Mermaid” and “Peter Pan.” Eventually, the Suskinds realize that this obsession with Disney films could be the key to communicating with their son and bridging the gap between him and the world around him.
“Life, Animated” is organized in a way that is both really engaging and sensical. The film jumps between interviews with Ron and Cornelia Suskind on their son’s difficult path through childhood and adolescence, and scenes of Owen’s current life. The documentary finds Owen about to graduate from a program that helps adults with mental and developmental disabilities live an independent life. This jump between the past and present balances the tone of the movie. The audience could see Owen’s parents fret over the seeming loss of their son, and in the next see an adult Owen wax poetic about his girlfriend or lead a Disney club in analysis of “The Lion King.”
In addition, the movie is also interspersed with familiar and original animated content. Owen, who finds the sidekicks in Disney films to be the most compelling and relatable, has written a story about those sidekicks that tells of his own perspective on his development of regressive autism, which has been animated into this film. These beautiful vignettes, combined with interviews with Owen, give deep and meaningful insight into his experiences as a small child and as an adult, and into the way that he and others with autism experience the world.
Beyond the stylistic attributes of this documentary, Roger Ross Williams does an excellent job of building up the world that Owen lives in. The audience gets to know his family, including his brother (fittingly named Walter), and get a glimpse into their relationships, both in lighthearted moments and more somber ones.
“Life, Animated” opens in New York and Los Angeles on July 1, and will go into wider release throughout July and August. It is an enriching and charming story of how the fantasy worlds that we know so well impact the real world, and I recommend going to see this movie as soon as you are able.
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