Warmhearted without being mawkish, Roger Ross Williams’ documentary tells the remarkable story of an autistic boy brought back into the world through the deep connection he feels with animated Disney movies. The uplifting effect of “Life, Animated” is pretty much irresistible.
The boy is Owen Suskind, whose story was told in print by his father Ron, a journalist for the Wall Street Journal. Ron also appears here in interviews, home movies and newly-shot footage, but the spotlight is definitely on his son, who’s shown as a normally active kid until age three, when his personality changed radically: his ability to speak and walk deteriorated markedly, leading to a diagnosis of pervasive developmental disorder. The prognosis was not good: he might never be able to speak anything but gibberish for the rest of his life, and even if he did it was unlikely that he would ever be able to live on his own.
One thing seemed to hold the boy’s attention, however: Disney animated movies, which he watched enthralled, and repeatedly. One day his said something that sounded similar to a line of dialogue from one of them. By using a stuffed animal, Ron was actually able to have a conversation with him. Owen was able to express himself, to say how he felt—but through the words (and expressions) of characters in the films he had come to identify with on an emotional level. The ones he embraced most, it became clear, were the sidekicks, about whom he later wrote (and illustrated) a story—presented here in, quite appropriately, an animated version—that revealed how he perceived his relationship to the world.
As the film shows, Ron and his wife Cornelia made every effort to find schools that would suit Owen’s special educational needs, and eventually they found an environment in which he could flourish, where he even established a club where he could share his love of the Disney films with classmates. Williams’ camera was on hand when Jonathan Freeman, a friend of the young man who voiced Jafar in “Aladdin,” stopped by—but even Owen was surprised when Gilbert Gottfried, who voiced Jafar’s sidekick Iago, dropped in as well.
The film builds up to Owen’s moving into his own apartment, just down the hall from that of his girlfriend, and shows his struggle coming to terms with even a limited degree of independence, the difficulty made more pronounced by the girl’s decision to break up with him. But the close brings some measured triumph, as Owen not only finds a job (appropriately at a movie theatre) but is invited to give a talk at a conference on autism in France about his life experience.
“Life, Animated” is, of course, a singular story, not a prescription for other children with autism. And one could engage in a serious discussion of whether the Disney view of the world offers a connection to reality that will be helpful in the long run. (From a purely cinematic perspective, you might also dread the possibility of Owen’s story being turned into a slick studio movie—presumably by Disney, which alone would have access to all the forage required.) But setting aside those sorts of issues, you can simply be happy for this one young man who found his way back, by whatever means, to a world from which he had been closed off.
And one can admire his loving, supportive family, not only his parents but his older brother Walter, who made it his job to protect Owen as they grew up and now spends time with him playing miniature golf and talking about life, though sometimes not quite connecting given Owen’s habit of seeing things through Disney-colored glasses. There’s a powerful scene in which he reflects on how his responsibility to his brother will only grow as their parents get older. The fact that he’s ready to take it on makes him a hero of the piece, too.