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Film Review: 'Life, Animated' - Strength Through Stories

life-animated-poster

Courtesy of Orchard Films.

Roger Ross Williams’ documentary, Life, Animated, delves into the very specific case of autism for Owen Suskind. Based on the book, Life, Animated: A Story of Sidekicks, Heroes, and Autism, written by Owen’s father, former journalist Ron Suskind, the film comes from the heart and reveals many close-to-the-chest incidences in the Suskind family’s experiences: how they made a breakthrough with his development, and how they look to the future resilient to the difficulty they have faced.

Utilizing a hybrid of original animation, animated clips from some of Disney’s most prominent films, archived family video footage and talking head interviews with Owen and his family; Life, Animated paints a very individualized story of how a young boy and his family dealt with early onset autism. Ron and Cornelia Suskind express how they felt when at only three years old, their son stopped talking and regressed to incoherent ramblings. Until he was about nine years old, Owen didn’t speak, but what his parents did notice was he would echo certain Disney quotes and once confronted with his father Ron, with an Iago the parrot puppet from Aladdin talking to him and asking him questions, father and son had their first-ever conversation.

Regardless of what some doctors claimed about a “lack of a breakthrough,” the Suskind family had found a magical way to communicate with their son. Owen memorized the dialogue of the films and could repeat them back. The simple story concepts were easy for Owen to relate to. They involved the ordinary fears we all have in life, whether it's the fear of having no friends, being bullied, losing our parents, being alone and of course, not wanting to grow up. The stories and exaggerated expressions in the animation helped Owen develop, learn and socialize again.

As Owen’s family learned how to spend time with and communicate with Owen, he was thrust more and more into the public eye. It was very difficult for him to make friends, and more often than not, he was picked on. The documentary shows not only the struggle Owen went through but the pain it caused his parents and older brother Walter. Owen used Disney films as a coping mechanism and as a way to cheer himself up when going through difficult times in his life. In addition to watching Disney films, Owen created stories of his own and used art and creative writing to cope. His father noticed that most of his drawings were of the sidekicks of Disney films and that after all of these years, Owen still craved friendship and understanding, much like we all do.

Utilizing the format of the documentary and Owen’s deepest desires, Jonathan Freeman (voice actor for the villain Jafar in Aladdin) and Gilbert Gottfried (voice actor for the villain sidekick Iago in Aladdin) came in to Owen’s school and attended the Disney Movie Club that Owen created in order to make new friends and connect with his high school community. The arc of the film forces us to feel the fear in Owen’s diagnosis, connect with Owen when it comes to feeling the magic of Disney films and empathize with him as he grows up and expresses some of the same fears we all have.

The film is edited in perfect balance with interviews with Owen and his family as well as animation that depicts the stories he created when coping with life’s difficult struggles. The documentary as a whole not only captures the pain and struggle of the Suskind family, but does it in a creative way in and of itself. The audience may be in tears, but the film achieves a balance of visual stimulation that we never tire of.