SIFF Film Review – Life, Animated
For those that think movies are a just disposable means of escapism, I suggest watching Roger Ross Williams’ Life, Animated (2016). This is a beautiful, heart-wrenching documentary that shows how the power of cinema can break through boundaries and enter a near spiritual realm. It’s a riveting story about family, frustration, and the love that keep us pushing forward. In a time where darkness and evil have become so pronounced in the public consciousness, Williams has shed light on a family whose devotion to each other instills hope in a way few others have. This should be seen by as many people as possible.
Ron and Cornelia Suskind noticed a dramatic change in their son Owen when he was three years old. He stopped talking, and appeared closed off to the rest of the world. Owen was soon diagnosed with autism, a revelation that devastated Ron, Cornelia, and Owen’s brother, Walt. Doctors believed Owen may never talk again, but Ron and Cornelia kept trying, doing whatever they could to somehow reach him.
A breakthrough came in the most unlikely of places. Ron knew that Owen loved Disney animated movies, watching them had become a family tradition. One day, Ron decided to use a Disney puppet (Iago from Aladdin, 1992) and talk to Owen in character, hoping to get a reaction. Ron got more than what he bargained for, when Owen suddenly started having a conversation as though the puppet was real. This was a major step forward for the family – they suddenly had an outlet to reach their son who had remained silent for over a year. From then on, the family communicated with Owen using dialogue from the movies, and using storylines as a way to help him understand the world around him.
This is an incredible story, one that is almost impossible to not have an emotional stake in. Seeing how the family interacts with Owen, and how they share their feelings about him as he gets older (he is twenty three at the time of filming) can tug the heartstrings of the most hardened cynic. Owen had come a long way from when he was a child – we see him graduating high school and contemplating living on his own (in an assisted living community), but questions still remain. Would he be able to function on his own? Can he deal with the sudden rush of stimuli from being in a different place away from what he knows?
We see him struggling to adapt. The world is unfortunately more complicated than what is depicted in Disney movies. Walt (appropriately named) has difficulty teaching Owen about the birds and bees, and during one scene we see Owen have a fit after his girlfriend dumps him. There are ups and downs, joy and heartbreak. Owen starts a Disney club, inviting others to watch movies with him. The club grows so popular that Aladdin voice actors Jonathan Freeman and Gilbert Gottfried come to visit. Owen also shows a skill at drawing, sketching Disney characters with surprising accuracy. This emotional roller coaster is clearly expressed in Ron and Cornelia. They know they won’t be around forever, but they sense that Owen is moving to a place where he’ll be ok. If there is any family out there struggling with autism, the Suskinds show that there is always hope, regardless of how hopeless things may seem.
Disney has been accused – sometimes appropriately – of being a mega corporation bent on financial dominion of the marketplace. But what we get from them here calls back to the feeling I believe Walt Disney tried attaining in his time. Instilling a sense of awe and wonder, that imagination can achieve things beyond standard convention. Regardless of what your feelings are for the company, they are to be applauded for allowing Williams to use their material for the documentary. Scenes from Peter Pan (1953), The Jungle Book (1967), The Little Mermaid (1989), Beauty and the Beast (1991), The Lion King (1994) and many others are shown. Disney could have easily claimed copyright and had them removed, but I believe they understood the importance of having those sequences, especially in how Owen used them to help him learn and grow.
But the animated sequences aren’t exclusively from Disney movies. Williams also incorporates beautifully hand drawn original scenes throughout. Most of these depict a three-year old Owen, and how he views the world from inside his mind. The animation is well crafted, blending black and white and splashes of color to illuminate how Disney has helped Owen. It takes us on a dreamlike tour of his thoughts, his hopes, his fears, his emotional state, etc. These are some of the more emotional moments, because they are where the tables turn. Through them we see things from Owen’s perspective.
I can’t recommend Life, Animated highly enough. I was moved by Owen and his family – by their strength and persistence to not allow an illness dictate their lives. The effect not only lies in the story or the people portrayed in it, but in the potential to make other people better. This will stay with me for a long, long time.
Also, be sure to check out our interview with director Roger Ross Williams.