Imagine spending your entire life in the Magical World of Disney via their animated films. Picture it: You become so immersed in this universe that you transform into a walking, talking Disney character. All of your interactions and social cues are acquired from Disney dialogue. Disney films are all that matter. I know what you are thinking: might as well crawl in the box because how would anyone in society stomach me? However, what if these films were the only way that you could understand and connect to the world around you, including your family?
In the documentary film Life, Animated Academy Award Winner, Roger Ross Williams introduces us to Owen Suskind. Owen has Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and found that with the help of watching Disney films he was able to communicate with the world around him. During the film, the audience learns how Owen’s family first discovered his illness and what they did to be able to communicate with their son. We are introduced to twenty-something Owen in present day and the film focuses on a big change that is occurring in his life. His school career is coming to a close and he is about to move out of his parent’s home, get a job, and become independent for the first time. Throughout the film, we are shown snippets from his past and present thru interviews, daily interactions, and charming animation.
For those that are not too familiar with Roger Ross Williams, he is no stranger to the documentary filmmaking world. After winning an Oscar for his short documentary, Music by Prudence he went on to make the powerful feature length film, God Loves Uganda. The subject matter in God Loves Uganda is quite heavy, as it explores the American Evangelicals’ methods to instill their Christian Right beliefs into the people of this country. In his latest feature Life, Animated (based on the 2014 bestselling book, by Owen’s dad Ron Suskind) the audience experiences a feel good story while also being educated about a disorder many people face and the challenges they experience in their everyday life.
During the hour and half long film, the audience not only witnesses the obstacles faced by Owen but his family too. Owen’s family once thought they would never speak to their son again. At the age of three, Owen simply stopped talking. After numerous doctor visits and tests, they discovered Owen suffered from ASD. His outlook for a normal life was bleak and the chance that he would ever communicate with his family again seemed unlikely. This never deterred Owen’s family, no matter how bad the news they received the family vowed to never give up on him.
In one scene Owen’s dad Ron recounts one of their countless family viewings of The Little Mermaid in which Owen began to speak. After making sense of his gibberish, the family realized Owen was speaking dialogue from the film in attempt to communicate with them. From that point forward the family only spoke in Disney. Ron even began to don an Iago puppet from the film, Aladdin in order to speak with his son. There was something about these Disney characters that helped their son be able to make sense of the world around him, especially the role of the sidekicks. Throughout the film, we learn of Owen’s fascination with sidekicks and finally understand that he sees these characters as the true heroes. In one scene his father speaks about Owen’s obsession with drawing them which then led him to create his own story, The Land of the Lost Sidekicks.
Over time, Owen became somewhat of a Disney expert even starting a Disney film club at the school he attended. This led to many friends and even a love interest. Not to give too much away, but I’m personally shocked that Gilbert Godfrey still has some fans out there.
Overall, this film was a great watch and was not your typical documentary style film of question/answer or voiceover. Instead it almost plays off as a narrative film. All of the subjects were extremely comfortable in front of the camera, including Owen and the story is presented naturally. I especially loved the animation sequences and how the film editor, David Teague utilized them throughout the entire film. The animation was such a perfect way to not only move the story along but to also express Owen’s feelings. After leaving this film, it made me realize that everyone faces their own unique challenges and how important it is to take the time to understand the world around us.