LIFE, ANIMATED (USA/TBC/89mins)
Directed by Roger Ross Williams. Starring Owen Suskind, Ron Suskind, Jonathan Freeman, Gilbert Gottfried, Alan Rosenblatt
THE PLOT: When he was three years old, Owen Suskind was diagnosed with autism, and retreated into his own world. Over time, Owen’s parents realised that watching animated Disney films was not only something the family could do together, but it was also something that Owen used to communicate with his family a little at a time. Now aged 23, Owen is just about to move out of home into an assisted living facility, and is facing a whole new set of challenges on his own.
THE VERDICT: Inspired by the book that Owen’s father Ron wrote about living with an autistic child, and trying to find a way to reach him, Life, Animated is a look into the world of a family who are struggling to communicate. Through interviews with the family and home movie footage, a picture is painted of a bright young boy who suddenly struggled to understand and communicate with the world around him, and his only way out was to use a scripted story that never changed, no matter how much everything else did.
Director Roger Ross Williams has carefully put ‘Life, Animated’ together, and obviously had the utmost trust from the Suskind family. Not only does Ross Williams interview Own, his father Ron, mother Cornelia and brother Walter, but he also follows the family as they prepare for Owen to move out and face the world almost alone. Owen comes across as a bright, cheerful and happy person, delighted to be alive and, although he struggles in certain situations, happy to be around people and celebrate his life. What becomes abundantly clear early on in the film is just how far Owen has come from a young boy who constantly spoke gibberish, to a young man who set up a Disney club to help others with learning disabilities – and to make friends – and moved out to live on his own.
It is clear that the Suskind family is loving, united and wonderfully kind, and this played a huge part in Owen being able to come as far as he has, and it is the Suskind’s emotion that gives the film heart and soul, as well as the infectious joy for life that emanates from Owen. Owen is open and honest about how he felt at the time when things went bad for him, and how Disney movies and his identifying with them made an important pathway for him in his life. Roger Ross Williams intersperses a short animated story based on one of Owen’s stories, throughout the film, and it is in this that the audience begins to understand where Owen is coming from, and how these animated films have helped him.
‘Life, Animated’ is a powerful look at communication, and just how an obsession can be something used to open people up when they shut down from the world that surrounds them. It is clear that the Suskind family, and Owen, are an exceptional group of people, but there are lessons here to take away for life in general, and although the film doesn’t so much end as fizzle out, it is a pleasure to spend time with this family.
RATING: 4/5
Review by Brogen Hayes

  • filmbuff2011

    If Walt Disney was alive today, then he would be very proud of what occurs in documentary Life, Animated. It seems that there’s more to Disney animated movies than just entertainment. They also prove to be the way into accessing one autistic child’s mind.

    At the age of 3, Owen Suskind developed autism. Much to the horror of his father Ron, mother Cornelia and brother Walt, Owen’s speech became garbled. They were no longer able to communicate verbally with him, as he became withdrawn and was locked inside himself. At the age of 5, he spoke a sentence that appeared to come from the Disney animated movie Aladdin. Owen loved every Disney animated movie, from Snow White to Bambi to Aladdin. He identified with the sidekicks – they became his heroes. One day, Ron talks to him in the voice of sidekick Iago while holding an Iago toy. They hold a conversation for the first time in four years, but in the language of a Disney movie. It turns out that Disney’s movies became a way for Owen to express himself, a way into his feelings for his family and his relationship with his protective brother Walt. Later on, we follow Owen as he faces adulthood and a first move towards independent living in a world that up to now was too intense for him…

    Life, Animated is the kind of documentary that is fully deserving of an Oscar. Hopefully, director Roger Ross Williams might add another to his mantlepiece. For it is as much about the power of cinema as it is about a family coping with an often misunderstood disorder. That’s something an Academy member could get behind. If you want to understand more about what autism really means and how people and their families cope with it, then this is the documentary for you. It’s also a documentary for anyone with a passionate interest in cinema and how it can change people’s lives – for the better.

    It’s a deeply personal film told from the perspective of those most invested in Owen’s life, including the man himself. For he is a man by the end of the film, after going through a coming-of-age story. There’s humour and heart to this story and also a tinge of sadness too. Watch in sympathy as Owen suffers his first heart-break with a girlfriend and is unable to process what it means. He doesn’t want to live alone without her. Why can’t life be like a Disney movie, with a happy ever after? Maybe he needs to watch Cinema Paradiso, when Alfredo proclaims ‘Life isn’t like in the movies. Life… is much harder.’

    Owen’s journey through his adult life is a touching one and it helps that he’s funny, engaging and a bit wacky too – much like a Disney sidekick. But there’s also the sense that this is a confident young man who is coming to terms with himself and his place in the world, a world where he is now independent but watched over by a caring family. Life, Animated is a lovely, emotional film that is more feel-good than anything fictional – because it’s real and tangible. It comes highly recommended. ****