Sundance 2016: ‘Life, Animated’ is transformative cinema

Life OwenLife, Animated
Directed by Roger Ross Williams
USA / France, 2016

Most movies overstay their welcome. The documentary Life, Animated is a beautiful, life-affirming tale that leaves you yearning for more. Director Roger Ross Williams introduces his characters with such care and affection that you instantly fall in love with them. Life, Animated is a testament to the power of cinema, not only to entertain, but to clarify those thoughts and emotions that evade our grasp. This is a truly resonant film about family and perseverance that will renew your faith in humanity.

Owen Suskind is a 23 year-old film buff. He knows every animated Disney film by heart, sometimes reciting the dialogue before the characters can even finish their sentences. The time has come for Owen to strike out on his own, moving away from his family and into a new apartment. He’s “nervous but excited” to begin this frightening new chapter in his life. Oh, yeah… Owen is also autistic.

When he was three years-old, Owen disappeared. Not literally, but into his own private hell. This once precocious child stopped speaking, could barely walk, and rarely made eye contact. Owen was quickly diagnosed with autism, thus beginning his parents’ long “rescue mission to get inside the prison” of his mind.

The only things that brought peace to Owen’s unquiet brain were the animated films of Disney. His father Ron made the surprising discovery that his young son not only knew each film forward and backward, but could use them to translate the chaotic emotions he couldn’t verbalize. With Peter Pan, Owen expressed his fears about growing up, while The Lion King helped him to be brave. Director Williams expertly weaves footage from multiple Disney classics into Owen and his family’s own recollections.

There are so many powerful and truthful moments packed into Life, Animated that it’s almost overwhelming. Home movie footage documents Owen’s astounding journey back from the brink, while dazzling animation illustrates the haunting imagery that clutters his mind. Owen’s mother Cornelia openly wonders what will happen after she and her husband die, while Owen’s older brother Walt ponders the delicate nature of discussing sex with someone raised only on Disney cartoons. He concludes that “cartoon porn” is not a good teaching guide. It’s painfully real stuff, but Williams is only interested in lighting candles to combat the darkness. This is an assured directorial effort that doesn’t need cheap sentimentality to trigger your emotions.

life studyWilliams works closely from journalist Ron Suskind’s original novel, and is granted unfettered access to the entire family. He opens every part of Owen’s life to scrutiny, from the bullying he endured in school to embarrassing sexual questions about his girlfriend. Again, nothing is done for sensational effect. The confusion and hardship is real, underscoring that Owen’s very independence as an adult is at risk.

Suskind’s firsthand accounts also open fascinating windows into the autistic mind. Upon finding the sketches Owen has made of his favorite Disney characters, Ron realizes that each sketch is a lovable sidekick. From Iago to Rafiki, Owen identifies himself as the reliable sidekick rather than the noble hero. He even goes so far as to write a story detailing his journey to “The Land of the Lost Sidekicks,” where his heroism earns him the title of ‘Protector of Sidekicks. Some of the best moments in Life, Animated involve the animated rendering of Owen’s story, complete with harrowing action, a terrifying arch-villain named Fuzzbutch (who blows fog into people’s brains), and a rousing conclusion rivaling most Hollywood films. Here, then, is the autistic brain coming to understand itself through art. Those who would denounce art as an unnecessary extravagance should heed its transformative power.

Most powerful, however, is what a good guy Owen has become. Watching that terrified, vacant-eyed little boy transform himself into a highly-functional adult is beyond inspiring. When he stands in a Parisian auditorium before a world-renown crowd of autism experts, he totally commands the room. That his self-prepared speech includes passages in French (a language he does not speak, mind you) is not only a cheeky flourish, but a declaration that he belongs at the podium. The sidekick has, at last, earned his way into the spotlight.

The obstacles Owen and his family have overcome in the last 20 years are almost unimaginable. Thanks to the artistry of Life, Animated, we have the privilege of sharing their victories and lamenting their defeats. Cinema might not be the most important thing in the world, but its ability to stir the imagination and inspire our emotions is almost unparalleled. Owen Suskind found a lifeline in the world of Disney. In turn, his story will become a lifeline for others who suffer from autism. Life, Animated is transformative cinema.

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