The advent of VHS in the 1980s and 90s meant that kids, like never before, could grow up on a diet of movies. Specifically, it was that rich library of American classics – the Disney movies, both old and new – that most children were content to watch over and over again, wearing the cassette down to a nub, and giving their parents a well-deserved break in the process. But few have ever taken their obsession as far as Owen Suskind did – and to such productive ends. Born to journalist Ron Suskind and his wife, Cornelia, Owen was diagnosed with autism at age three. He lost his power of speech, capable of spouting only gibberish. His family was distraught. Yet it was during a screening of The Little Mermaid that the young boy first spoke again, and over the years, he took what he learned from his favourite films and applied them to reality, granting himself an inspiring second chance at life.
The documentary follows Owen as a young adult, who’s preparing to graduate from college and live by himself for the first time. Talking heads are used to fill in the gaps of Owen’s coming-of-age story, though there is also an extensive use of animation itself – both in archive Disney footage and original compositions by the French studio Mac Guff. Viewers see how Owen’s coping mechanisms include leading a Disney club at the college – inspiring other challenged students – and, notably, doing drawings of his own. A story of his entitled “Land of the Lost Sidekicks” is brought to life by animation, in what is undoubtedly the highlight of the film; the bold, instinctual pull of the hand-drawn image is made breathlessly clear.
Elsewhere, though, Life, Animated’s message suffers from stickiness. Beyond some sentimental qualities – namely an overpowering soundtrack – there’s a frustrating lack of depth to filmmaker Roger Ross Williams’s investigation. Specifically, the limits of a diet of Disney films is only ever brought up once – and it’s played for a cheap laugh about sex. The film skips over Owen’s genuine hardship, such as when his girlfriend breaks up with him, and the sketchy, unrealistic image of the world that these movies evoke cannot help him process genuine pain. While an insistence on celebratory growth may help this documentary be seen as “life-affirming”, it somewhat lets down its subject – who is still struggling, day after day, to understand what it means to be normal.
Life, Animated is released in selected cinemas on 9th December 2016.
Watch the trailer for Life, Animated here: