Get away from that TV! Stop watching movies to escape! Go outside and live! Kids everywhere are used to hearing their parents hammer advice like that. This is not the case in Life, Animated — a funny, touching and vital documentary from Roger Ross Williams (God Loves Uganda) in which escape can be be a lifesaver. Take Owen Suskind, the subject of this film and a 2014 book that his father, Ron Suskind, wrote about him and autism. When Owen was three, he began to lose his ability to walk on his own and speak well enough to be understood. The medical outlook was grim.
Then, during a family viewing of Disney’s The Little Mermaid, Owen wanted to see several scenes again. When Owen tried to talk, his father, mother Cornelia and older brother Walter began to understand that Owen was reciting lines from the movie, sometimes all the lines from the movie. Owen’s interest eventually expanded to Disney’s entire animated output.
Disney allowed use of the clips from its catalogue to show the effect the films were having on the young man. But repetition alone is no answer. Owen used these movies, with their broadly drawn characters, to compare what he saw to his own life. It gave him a way to communicate with others in school and in therapy. He identified most with the sidekick characters, from Jiminy Cricket to Pumbaa, and wrote his own story, “The Land of the Lost Sidekicks.” In one touching moment, Owen gets a school visit from Aladdin voice actors Jonathan Freeman (Jafar) and Gilbert Gottfried (Iago). Bring handkerchiefs.
The film follows Owen into his twenties, dealing with the pressures of public speaking, dating, finding his own apartment, and the simple yet terrifying act of being alone. His parents and Walter remain a constant support. In no way does Owen’s story claim to be a cure-all. Instead of false hope, it offers up possibility, the chance of a stimulus that might get past the blocks of developmental disorder. That’s more than encouraging. Life, Animated is truly inspirational.