Life, Animated

***1/2

Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Owen Suskind in Life, Animated - Owen Suskind, an autistic boy who could not speak for years, slowly emerged from his isolation by immersing himself in Disney animated movies. Using these films as a roadmap, he reconnects with his loving family and the wider world in this emotional coming-of-age story.
"This is not about once upon a times or fairy tale endings but the challenges on the way and it stands as a testament to the love and determination of every member of the Suskind family."

There are many of us who, while growing up, grew to love Disney movies, whatever their starting point was - in my case, The Aristocats, just for the record - with the advent of video recorders meaning that children could watch them again and again there and then, rather than having to wait the customary seven or so years for the film to return to the cinema.

For Owen Suskind and his family, however, the House of Mouse films came to mean a lot more than a bit of shared family time. That's because Owen has autism, which meant that although the first couple of years of his life seemed perfect to his family, he was suddenly about to change. His father Ron, on whose book the film is based, says his son's regression as he lost his motor skills and retreated to non-verbal state was as though he had been "kidnapped" - and the word "devastated" is understandably used by more than one family member.

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In what sounds as though it could be the plot of a Disney film itself, it was some years later when his family realised that they could connect to Owen through the Disney films he loved so much. Essentially, the characters in the films - with their exaggerated expressions and heightened emotions - help Owen to process things back in the real world. A sort of more practical version of 'What would Jesus do?', if you like.

As the film begins, Owen is 25 and on the verge of graduating and leaving home for an assisted living block, where he have an apartment on the floor below his girlfriend of four years, Emily. It's a big step, so it's no surprise that in the run-up his animated focus seems to be Peter Pan - about the boy who never grew up. It's a common myth that non-neurotypical people don't understand emotion but as Owen shows, the reality is much more complex than that. If anything, he feels emotions more than other people, with anxiety being a particular difficulty, but he is nothing if not determined. "Independent means great and fabulous," he says, his nervousness revealed by his selection of Bambi as the film he watches on the first night he leaves home. This is, oddly enough, one of the film's only slightly off notes, as you wonder just how intrusive the camera crew are on this first night alone.

Documentarian Roger Ross Williams' approach is all about emotions, from the fears and pride that Ron and Cornelia feel about their son's progress, to the worries expressed by his older brother Walter, who after missing a spate of bullying when his younger brother was a teenager is determined to never let anything bad happen to him again - a task which he realises is practically Sisyphean. Williams also gives Owen plenty of time to talk about what is important to him and uses stories that he has written - about Disney's side-kicks and their arch-enemy Fuzzbutch - to further illustrate his feelings. These play out as animated sequences crafted by Mac Guff, their impressionistic fuzziness offering a pleasing contrast to Disney's more familiar work.

Williams also pushes the film into some interesting areas, mainly via the considerations of Walter, who is trying to help his brother navigate adult human behaviour - such as French kissing and beyond - that falls well outside the Disney remit. Crucially, we see that Owen understands these limitations and is trying to step into the 'unknown' as best he can. Like the youngsters whose lives are documented in Normal Autistic Film, we see that while Owen may have more difficulty than others he is ultimately just trying to muddle on the same as the rest of us.

In the end, this is not about once upon a times or fairy tale endings but the challenges between those two points and it stands as a testament to the love and determination of every member of the Suskind family.

Reviewed on: 25 Nov 2016
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Life, Animated packshot
The story of an autistic man who was able to reconnect with his family via Disney films.

Director: Roger Ross Williams

Writer: Ron Suskind

Year: 2015

Runtime: 89 minutes

Country: US, France


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