The Verse’s Oliver Pendlington tell us his views on the inspirational documentary Life, Animated -screened at Brighton’s CineCity Film Festival.
Director: Roger Ross Williams
Screenplay: Ron Suskind
Stars: Owen Suskind, Ron Suskind, Walt Suskind, Jonathan Freeman and Gilbert Gottfried
Plot: The true story of Owen Suskind, who developed autism at 3 years old and thus lost his ability to communicate. In this time, he fell in love with Disney animated movies and, to his family’s astonishment, regained his communication through them. The Suskinds valiantly use Owen’s obsession to help him re-connect and adjust to the world around him.
Steven Spielberg once said that film is a visual language; it is a medium through which, arguably, we can express our thoughts and feelings. As this mesmerising documentary by Roger Ross Williams shows, film can also be used to help develop language and find our place within the world, even against a challenging condition like autism. Autism is extremely difficult to live with for the people affected by it and those closest to them. Watching how Owen’s determined family help him overcome the struggles he faces through his connection with Disney movies is an emotionally powerful journey of the conflict between hope and love against despair and fear of being different.
We first meet Owen as a confident young man at age 23 preparing to graduate and move away from home. These scenes of optimism contrast with upsetting flashbacks to his childhood that illustrate the devastating impact of his condition on his whole family. Working from the memoir of Owen’s father Ron, Williams does not flinch from showing how testing autism is. In Owen’s mind, sounds are garbled and the world is a frightening blur of loud horrible noises. In heartbreakingly honest words, his distressed parents admit their fear that they have lost their son without his speech.
The use of classic Disney animated movies like Peter Pan, The Little Mermaid and The Lion King thus serve as a joyous, and frequently poignant, device in how Owen connects with them to help him cope with his condition. These movies are, of course, widely loved across the world, but Owen’s observations of them highlight just how differently autistic people can perceive them. This is best shown when he compares his own journey to those of various characters like Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Owen especially develops a love of the Disney sidekicks, citing their important role of helping the heroes (or villains) in their hour of need. His love is demonstrated through beautiful original animation of a story he himself created based on his desire to protect the sidekicks. These animated segments symbolise the often-overlooked power this form of cinema has in conveying thoughts, feelings and emotions.
And yet despite this fantastical use of hope, Life, Animated also deals with relevant coming-of-age themes. Like other young people, Owen must still face other common challenges in life, which is complicated through his autism. This also demonstrates the limitations Disney films can have on a person’s development, like their withdrawal on discussing sex (a huge drawback for Owen’s desire to be in a relationship). Again, Williams does not hide the knowledge that most autistic people like a set routine and any change can cause severe anxiety and struggle to adjust, such as when Owen moves away from home. It is through this that Williams strikes the right balance of natural drama and light-hearted humour in a documentary regarded as ‘the best Disney movie not made by Disney’. This is a must-see film for anyone who has or knows somebody with autism.