Life, Animated (2016)
Dir: Roger Ross Williams
Acting almost like a visual follow-up to dad Ron Suskind’s best-selling 2014 book, covering the formative events in his son Owen’s life and simultaneously now at this time of huge change for him, featuring the animated films that have been so important and getting some of the remarkable story in Owen’s own words.
This is a documentary film about Owen Suskind, a young man with autism, as he faces big changes in his life, showing how his love of animated Disney films has helped him and his family.
There’s a theory in media studies that we seek out media for specific purposes, stating that a film or TV programme can fulfil a need we have even if that need is simply ‘just’ entertainment and relaxation. Two of the other needs are to enhance knowledge and for social interaction. This film shows an incredible evidence of those in action, that Owen Suskind uses Disney films to help him understand the world around him and then to cope with living in it including using them verbatim or generally for social situations.
Brilliantly the film does what the book couldn’t, giving the key visual side to the story. It makes extensive and effective use of home movies from Owen’s youth, there are also pieces of lovely sketch-style animation and illustrated moments from the opening titles and throughout that give a depiction of things being described. The film also has unprecedented use of extracts from Disney films, an result of exceptional permissions being granted by the studio, reportedly after a presentation of the rough cut of the film made the lawyers cry.
Jumping between childhood and more current adulthood after the first scenes, we can quickly see why it’s good to pick up Owen’s fascinating story now, at a time of big changes in his life. He’s about to graduate and then move into an apartment of his own. As he talks about these new challenges, either to family or to the camera, there are frequent clips from Disney films and Owen is seen reacting to them or even acting them out. This is a key part of his relationship with the Disney movies and has been for years, shown through clips of him doing this both in his childhood with his family and then again in later life as the documentary is being made. Having the rights to actually show these original clips helps to put these moments in their proper context and explains them in a better way than just describing them probably would.
The film has a few flourishes, mainly through use of original animation. From the start there are sketched animation moments, most are brief, their simple style is very nice and add a visual element to parts of recollections to which there are no accompanying home movies. With some of the pieces of family footage the film tries to demonstrate how Owen heard voices as garbled, making the sound on some clips garbled too. Other aspects of the life of an autistic person are well-detailed in the film, showing things such as a planning meeting and a session on improving his social thinking which are interesting to learn about.
The best parts of the film are those centred on the Suskind family. As the film recounts Owen’s youth when his autism began, we get the full story in detail, with Owen’s parents speaking regularly to camera explaining it from their perspective. They are very articulate (to be expected especially from his father who is a Pulitzer-winning journalist), describing what it was like with expressions such as Owen ‘vanished’ which are superbly descriptive and get the point across very well. At times Ron Suskind is so eloquent it’s clear he’s a writer, describing one breakthrough as starting a ‘rescue mission’. Most of the contributors are Owen’s family with a little from doctors and other specialists, nicely balancing these viewpoints with Owen’s own input as much as possible.
For me the stand-out part of the film was the relationship between Owen and his older brother Walter. He has a lovely way with his brother and they are clearly close, with just a few scenes of the two of them together. We do get a good amount of time with him in the film but I would have liked to see even more. He has a great weight on his shoulders, aware that the family are all getting older and he will eventually become sole carer for his brother and his parents. It’s clear he takes that responsibility seriously and I think an entire other film could be made about that.
The other star of the story is Disney. There are VHS tapes and memorabilia everywhere and it’s the catalyst for change in what starts out as a bleak tale. Firstly the films help the family to share some time together, said to be one thing he and his brother could both enjoy. Then the remarkable tale unfolds about how Owen and his family used Disney to communicate, with his first words in a year being thanks to ‘The Little Mermaid’. What develops is an amazing sequence of breakthroughs, especially one in which Owen showed incredible understanding, relating what he experienced around him to a complex thought conveyed in some of the Disney films. Developments like these lift the tone of the film quickly, aided by more sketch illustrations and animated sequences as the family explain how they adapted to try whatever worked to communicate with him.
In more recent years Owen’s passion lead to him running a Disney club, a considerable sized group who enjoy the films and take life lessons from them.There are limits to their application though, as is pointed out, the world is not a Disney film. There are some things that can’t easily be discussed through use of Disney films, though Owen regularly finds a clip or two that help him with certain changes, his brother touches on the difficulties of discussing some topics that Disney films never portray.
Owen has also been writing his own stories about the Disney sidekicks he relates to, which gets adapted as original animated sequences at a few points in the film, with a little narration from Owen. They are longer and more visually detailed animated scenes than the others used, nicely again adding visuals to the story so that it goes beyond the scope of the book. Hearing things from Owen’s point of view is important, he may at times struggle to express himself but it’s far better than hearing any number of other people talk about him no matter how eloquent they are. By the end of the film we leave Owen at a new chapter in his life, past some of the changes mentioned in the outset, invited to speak at an autism conference in France. I thought this was a very fitting conclusion to the film that sums up a lot of the themes, crucially doing so in Owen’s own words.
I’ve always been a strong proponent of films being more than just entertainment, believing that their other uses elevate their value and place in the lives of many who find them invaluable. Owen’s story is a remarkable example of this, with Disney films being potentially the one thing that made an otherwise against the odds difference. I do wonder if there are other inspirational stories like this, that just haven’t had the same publicity because the person’s dad isn’t a journalist. No doubt his career helped with getting this account into best-selling book form and then prompting the making of this film. I’m glad this tale has been told and so well, it’s an uplifting story that highlights some of the depth of beloved films and underscores their lasting appeal.
‘Life, Animated’ has already won a number of awards and is now nominated for the ‘Best Documentary Feature’ Oscar at next weekend’s Academy Awards. It is very unlikely to win, the competition is so strong, but it is clearly a powerful film that will have lasting appeal, especially to families in situations similar to the Suskinds.