It’s impossible to completely divorce my reaction to Roger Ross Williams’ remarkable “Life, Animated” from two of the most definitive roles in my life: father and film critic. For the former, the film emotionally forced me to consider my relationship to my sons as it captures a father whose life forever changes when his son’s autism puts up a wall between the two of them. For the latter, Williams’ film is also about how we use film to interpret and relate to the world. In the case of this documentary, it’s the stunning story of a boy who found a path to communication with a confusing world through Disney animation, but show me a film critic and I’ll show you someone who has shaped their view of the world through cinema. Whatever personal response to “Life, Animated” that may differentiate my experience from yours, it’s a film to which I believe everyone can relate, an emotional powerhouse about a young man who finds reality confusing enough that he needs fiction to understand it.
When Owen Suskind was three years old, he just stopped talking. We see a playful video of a young Owen, pretending to be Peter Pan in his backyard with his dad. It’s hard to believe that autism can have such a screeching halt impact as to take that boy and essentially make him mute, but that’s what happened to Owen. It wasn’t until two key events—one while watching “The Little Mermaid” and one after his brother’s birthday party—that his parents realized that there was a way not only to communicate with Owen but to give him the tools to deal with the rest of the world. He learned about loss watching “Bambi”; he learned about identity watching “Dumbo”; he learned about recovering from grief watching “The Lion King.” The list goes on and on. Disney characters from Simba to Ariel are often characters who have to overcome worlds that scare them, and Owen learned how to cope and deal with society by employing some of the same tools as those iconic cartoons.
“Life, Animated” is essentially a chronological retelling of how Owen went from a relatively mute child to a young man trying to live on his own, but it’s perfectly edited, carefully weaving together interviews, Disney clips, and in a brilliant decision, hand-drawn animation reenacting key moments of Owen’s childhood. There’s a brief glimpse of “Monsters, Inc.” on Owen’s shelf, but I found it interesting that Owen seems to use older Disney films for his arsenal more than CGI/Pixar era (or, that could be a decision made by Williams). Either way, the choice to incorporate animation into the documentary is a very effective one, and it’s important to note that “Life, Animated” is not just a moving story but a very well-made film as well.
However, that moving aspect of “Life, Animated” is what I suspect will make it one of the more well-liked films of Sundance 2016. The fact is that we all use different tools to deal with the world around us. And a lot of us learned about loss, love and triumph watching Disney animation. Owen Suskind just kept using those tools longer than most of us were self-aware that we were doing the same. His story is heartwarming, moving and illuminating about how not just people with autism but all of us process cinema and society. At one point, Owen’s father turns to him and says, “You’re the greatest.” It’s hard not to nod your head in agreement.