A poignant and powerful documentary about the life of a remarkable young man named Owen Suskind who, at 3 years old, seemingly vanished from the world under the shadow of an extreme form of autism. The film charts his family’s struggles with Owen’s diagnosis and the devastating impact of the condition. It is ultimately a miraculous story of how Owen, unable to communicate for most of his childhood, overcame insurmountable odds and found a way back through the magic of Disney movies. Based on the bestselling book by Owen’s dad, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Ron Suskind and directed by the critically acclaimed Roger Ross Williams (God Loves Uganda), Life Animated is a wonderfully composed and memorable piece of filmmaking.
We are introduced to Owen aged 23, about to move out of his parent’s home to his own apartment for the first time. The journey to this point is recounted in a compelling manner as we learn about Owen’s early years via his parent’s Ron and Corrine. How he lost the ability to speak or interact on any level and gradually withdrew from their lives altogether is told with an emotional rawness which endears you to the family and draws you into their narrative. It wasn’t until years later that they discovered that Owen’s seemingly nonsensical mumbling was actually dialogue which he’d memorised from Disney scripts. This realisation allows them to break through the communication barrier and gradually reconnect with their son.
The non invasive style of Williams’ direction works well and allows the Buskinds themselves to be the key component of the film. They are great company throughout. The affinity between Owen and his parents in nicely conveyed but some of the best scenes in the film involve the interaction between Owen and his older brother Walt (whether he was named after Mr. Disney is never revealed, but it is a nice coincidence nevertheless). Walt’s own fears for the future and recognition of the difficulties that Owen will have to face keeps the film grounded. A scene where he attempts to discuss french kissing with Owen over a game of crazy golf is particularly effective. Walt is left contemplating that the only way to teach his brother about sex may well be by showing him Disney porn. These moments of light-hearted humour are peppered throughout the film. Owen gets plenty of screen time to relay his feelings and for us as an audience to comprehend the challenges of autism and understand how Disney’s characters and themes have enabled him to make sense of life. We see Owen facing the hurdles that we all have to overcome at some point; being alone, finding a job, speaking in public and the pain of young love. Witnessing Owen say goodbye to his first girlfriend Emily is crushing and packs more romantic wallop than a million Nicholas Sparks adaptations combined. Williams utilises Disney footage to great effect. Interspersing animated sequences into the film injects some visual dynamism to proceedings as well as providing a nice connection between Owen’s world and the cinematic realm which brought him out of the darkness.
This is a truly unique and special film. Never shying away from the harsh truths of life and by no means suggesting that Owen’s struggle is over, the film maker’s approach is utterly unsentimental. It’s an engaging, succinct and beautifully told story which serves as testament to the power of imagination and the enduring magic of cinema. If you’re having a bad day, drop whatever you’re doing and go see this. Life Animated is life affirming. An absolute triumph.