This film could have been titled “There Will Be Beef.”
When Owen Suskind was three years old, his motor and language skills deteriorated, seemingly overnight. He retreated from the world. His parents took him to specialists, hoping there would be some way to "fix" Owen. It was the 1990s, and so autism, or the concept of the "spectrum" had not moved into common currency yet. When Owen was diagnosed with autism, his parents were devastated. But finally, light from the caves of Owen's mind: his family discovered that Disney's animated movies, beloved by Owen, allowed Owen to access his emotions and put those emotions into words. It was a huge breakthrough. Owen Suskind is now 23 years old, and his journey is the subject of Roger Ross Williams’ heart-rending documentary "Life, Animated." Based on the book of the same name written by Owen's father Ron Suskind (a Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist), the documentary shows Owen's childhood (through home-movie footage) and flips forward to his current situation where he is about to leave his group home and get his own apartment for the first time.
Ron Suskind wrote in a 2014 article in The New York Times, "We were never big fans of plopping our kids in front of Disney videos, but now the question seemed more urgent: Is this good for him? [The doctors] shrug. Is he relaxed? Yes. Does it seem joyful? Definitely. Keep it limited, they say. But if it does all that for him, there’s no reason to stop it." Disney movies helped Owen relate to whatever he was going through in his life, and it helped his parents and his older brother communicate.
Owen is first shown as an adult, wandering along a sidewalk by himself, speaking what sounds like gibberish. Over the course of the film it becomes clear what he is doing: using funny voices from characters in Disney movies, dialogue from favorites like "Peter Pan," "Aladdin," "The Lion King," "The Little Mermaid." Unlike his three-year-old self, though, he now can speak words other than Disney dialogue (he also taught himself to read from the end-credits of Disney films). He uses slightly formal language, asking his mother at one point after a personal disappointment, "Why is the world so full of pain and tragedy?" He spends his time at his group home learning from therapists how to deal with everyday situations, in preparation for his exit from the safe environment. Owen started a Disney Club at his group home, where the residents gather, watch a film and then talk about it afterwards. Owen, leading the discussion, asks the group, "What is Mustafa teaching Simba?" Owen is a leader (he is now a spokesman-advocate for people who are autistic).
Owen's childhood is presented in the film by his parents, Ron and Cornelia, and his older brother Walt, sharing memories of what happened, how they felt. These backstory sequences are accompanied by home movie footage as well as evocative animation, created by Mathieu Betard, Olivier Lescot, Philippe Sonrier. The animation grows in complexity as Owen starts to join the world. At first, for example, there's a small black-and-white boy shown standing at the end of a long dark hallway, no way out. Later, the animation goes to fantastical Technicolor, as Owen accesses his own creativity. Owen was bullied in school, and he found comfort in drawing various Disney characters. Ron Suskind, looking at the piles of artwork by his son, realized at one point that Owen only drew the "sidekicks," never the heroes. Owen declares: "I am the protector of sidekicks. No sidekicks get left behind."