At the age of three, Owen Suskind “disappears.” He changes: awake all night, speaking in gibberish, a loss of motor function, an inability to understand what people are saying. Diagnosed with autism, Owen’s life changes forever.
But a love for animated movies, particularly those of the Disney Corporation, allows Owen an outlet from which he can learn to speak and overcome the negative symptoms of his autism.
Through The Little Mermaid, Owen’s first words in over a year come from a mimicry of one of the film’s lines: “Just your voice.” Poetic, no? Only, doctors assure Owen’s parents that this phenomenon is merely echolalia, which does not mean he is going through a linguistic breakthrough.
Yet, Owen’s absorption of Disney animated films like Peter Pan and The Lion King and the like allow him to understand complex emotional facets of the human condition like nothing else can. As Owen grows closer to teenage years, Owen’s father realizes that he can communicate with his son, finally after all of these years, through a puppet of Iago (the bird from Aladdin).
Life, Animated documents not only Owen’s upbringing, but it situates the viewer within adult Owen’s transition to living on his own. Thus, the film’s scope is elliptical enough to receive a full scope of the world Owen is used to, as well as the uncertain world he is about to enter.
Perhaps the only criticism to be levied against Life, Animated is the moments in which the film pauses to show Owen, directly addressing camera, staging watching films or emoting. These scenes are not reductive, per se, but the film generally achieves what these scenes are going for without committing to clear artifice.
Indeed, the camera does get a little too close at times, both literally and in terms of perspective. Scenes that are meant to be candid come off as more camera-ready than truly candid. This is one of those hard-to-avoid—but not truly unavoidable—aspects of documentary that crop up from time to time.
Regardless, Life, Animated is a heartfelt look at the triumph of the perseverance of the human spirit. Owen is a character study worth preserving on film just as his favorite films are preserved for children to learn from and enjoy.
The reflexiveness of this concept is not the most important takeaway from this documentary, of course, but it is certainly worth noting. The concept of children’s film having the ability to shape our understanding of human connection is a powerful subject to broach.
However, what is most important is the film’s exploration of the trials of human development that face not only Owen, but that are universal to everyone. The place of connection here is a brilliant organizational tactic. The arcs of highs and lows within the film are, beat for beat, emotionally rich and unflinchingly human, and they reach the viewer in ways that are unexpectedly powerful.
Life, Animated: A
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)