When it comes to the movies we enjoy and love, it is always a melting pot of different kinds of films, whether it’s comedy, horror, action or romance. The thumbs up or thumbs down on a movie is purely subjective, even when it comes to my movie reviews, it’s no different. I may love what you hate and vice versa. That being said, I believe there is a common ground where everyone seems to have a solid favorite and that’s the Disney animated films. Most of the people you come across have very fond feelings for one, as the studio has been dominant in this market ever since releasing Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs in 1937. Hell, the fireworks celebration held here just this past weekend in Vancouver drew in over a half a million people looking to see their favorite songs against the backdrop of exploding pyro. I think it’s for this reason that Life, Animated works so well and is a real crowd pleaser.
The human condition and human behavior is always a curious subject and always makes for the most interesting documentary subject matter. Director Roger Ross Williams delves into a story that may strike close to home many times throughout Life, Animated, especially if you are a parent. The movie really embodies what it means to fight for your child and to never give up in the face of a seemingly insurmountable challenge. This film is almost a litmus test of weeding out those who are completely dead inside emotionally or just complete robots. If you don’t have an emotional reaction at some point during this movie, well, you need to seek out a therapist because there might be some problems.
The film follows Owen Suskind and his parents, Ron and Cornelia. Owen was born a happy and healthy baby, full of life until the age of three when he seemed to just shut down and get lost in life. As described by Owen himself, the world just got confused and the language just broke down to an unintelligible roar. In his own words “people’s words came out garbled”. As Owen began to descend into his own nonsense language, Ron relates that it was like someone stole his son. They brought Owen to a series of specialists who eventually diagnosed him as autistic, something, at that time, was almost a mystery to most doctors. They were then the very crushing outcomes that Owen may never pull out of this and would be a prisoner of his own mind for the rest of his life.
Never giving up and wanting to get their little boy back, Ron and Cornelia tried everything to get any sort of reaction or change from Owen’s blank condition but were coming up short. There was only one glimmer of anything in Owen’s eyes and that was anytime they put on a VHS tape of any Disney film for him. Then the reactions would almost seem like they had their son back and soon Owen uttered his first words in years. In almost their own autism experiment, Ron, Cornelia and their oldest son, Walt, finally had a breakthrough with Owen, as he had learned to speak and articulate through the dialogue and songs of Disney. He had even taught himself to read by memorizing the many films’ opening credits. Now, in his twenties, Owen looks to make another huge leap with the help of Disney movies, and that’s moving out on his own to start his adult life.
Roger Ross Williams takes on this incredible true story of Owen Suskind with an approach that really makes you feel the reality of his situation and an originality that makes his story stand out and be something undeniably special. Along with the original animations of scenes from many classic Disney films, the movie also features animated scenes of Owen’s own creation, The Protector of The Sidekicks, by a company called Mac Guff. These little short pieces are even more of an insight into the complexity of his thinking and the true heart of this young man and his embrace of the little guy, as that is largely what he felt like. Although it is unclear if Owen will ever be able to live his life on his own with no assistance, there is that glimmer of hope after all that he has overcome so far.
As emotionally riveting as the beginning of Owen’s problems and the eventual perseverance of beating his language barrier, his coming of age and the way he would go on to operate in the world is infinitely fascinating. There was a point in his preteens where he headed down a dark road due to bullying and the threats of violence from these individuals that, I’m sure, most of us have had to deal with at some time in life but how does someone like Owen take it? He also, in the present time portion of the film, has a romantic relationship and how does that work with his condition?
The documentary constantly compels and raises interesting questions at every turn. I don’t feel like I gained a massive amount of information about autism itself but I did learn about what that means to Owen Suskind and his family and how they found a way to, as Ron puts it, “reach into Owen’s imprisoned mind and rescue him”. It’s a truly touching story of the unfathomable depths of parental love and never giving up in the face of adversity. This is true for Owen’s family and Owen himself, and which is told in his stirring speech at the end of the film. In the group of inspirational documentaries, Life, Animated is a film that stands tall. Hopefully, this film gets remembered for Oscar season, as I’m giving it a five out of five.