Director, Robert Ross Williams brings us a colourful and tender documentary with his newest release Life, Animated. A coming of age movie about Autism and of making sense of the world through film.
Many people can claim to grow up watching Disney films. Owen Suskind is no different. Every day was filled with toy sword fights with Dad, constant re-runs of the Little Mermaid and scribblings of favourite characters. But as he grew up he became distant, regressing into himself. Owen would communicate with babbles and his movement was erratic – unable to properly walk in a straight line.
The difference before and after his sudden change was stark. The once bubbly child was socially removed. He rarely talked or made eye contact, he would deviate from crowds at birthday parties. His parents learnt that he had autism and to their horror, were told of the possibility that he would not be able to speak again or potentially meet major milestones that other children will achieve.
Over time, his parents realised that Owen wasn’t babbling nonsense but was repeating his favourite lines from Disney movies. He had become a Disney dialogue dictionary, pulling phrases and lines verbatim and forming his worldview alongside Aladdin, Simba and others. Even though he was closed off, he was intelligent – learning how to read by watching the credits to every film.
“Life, Animated” documents Suskind’s growth as a 23-year-old into an independent adult dealing with holding down jobs, figuring out romance and living by himself. After spending all of his life watching Peter Pan’s escapades and Quasimodo’s struggle to fit in, Owen has become the star of his own story, with Disney acting as one of his beloved sidekicks; contextualising the major moments of his life.
Even as he matures, his emotions and the way he interacts with the world has been and almost always will be funnelled through a patchwork of dialogue from his childhood. It’s these many moments speckled throughout the film that we get to see exactly what Owen is thinking. When he moves away for the first time, he lies in bed watching Bambi, specifically the heartbreaking scene where Bambi’s mother is shot. Without saying anything, Owen feels; He feels lonesome and misses his Mother.
Through Owen’s eyes, the many moments in Disney that I may have balked at have a newer sheen of deeper meaning: ones that are articulate in how they deal with learning how to belong, or how to deal with adversity during dark times. Maybe the repeated viewings have accumulated to an intimate knowledge that can only be gleamed by religious studying.
But such an approach using Disney as a bible to base oneself upon becomes clear in how it has flaws. Not everything in Disney translates accurately over to real life. There is a gaping point after the “happy ever after” that Disney films rarely account for – the complicated stuff that happens later on in the story. Even though Owen is 23, how do you approach topics like sex using examples from the films? – the solution to the question is cautiously attempted by a stand-in-mentor.
Life, Animated is a powerful documentary that refuses to shy away from the family’s struggles by covering things up. It shows the group effort to help Owen transition towards where he wants to be, validating who he is and not forcing him away towards where they want him to be. While at times twee, it packs emotional punch in its intimate interviews and the use of vivid animation to clarify how someone on the autistic spectrum thinks. By the end of the film, I genuinely do think I have seen someone change on camera during the short period.
Overall “life, animated” provides a stark look at the reality that many people affected by autism face on a daily basis, and perfectly demonstrates the demands that a modern society can have on people afflicted.