Film Review: Life, Animated

Beguiling documentary profile of a fascinating young autistic man who connects with the world through his enchantment with Disney cartoons.
Specialty Releases

Winner of the U.S. Documentary Directing Award at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, Roger Ross Williams’ Life, Animated is a fascinating, intimate portrait of Owen Suskind, an engaging young man who will shatter your preconceptions about the aloofness of the autistic. At age three, Owen suddenly presented symptoms of the disorder, retreating into a private world and speaking gibberish. His father Ron, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, and mother Cornelia despaired of ever bonding with their once-vibrant son—until they made the startling discovery that little Owen had become fixated on Disney cartoons, to the point of reciting an entire film’s dialogue word-for-word. The “A-ha!” moment came when his older brother looked sad during his ninth-birthday party and Owen, out of the blue, observed, “Walter doesn’t want to grow up, like Peter Pan.” It was the first complete sentence he had ever uttered.

The Disney canon, from early classics like Bambi and Dumbo to more modern gems like The Lion King and Aladdin, became Owen’s means of connecting with and understanding the world. A medical expert notes that, amidst the sensory bombardment that is autism, these animated tales provide a mental oasis because they are a constant reference point that never changes. Fueled by his enthusiasm for the cartoons, the now-23-year-old Owen becomes a surprisingly social creature, forming and leading a Disney club for other mentally challenged friends (“So I can be more popular!” he proclaims). In a delightful sequence, he solidifies that popularity when he invites Jonathan Freeman, the voice of the villainous Jafar in Aladdin, to his club meeting, and is himself surprised by the sudden appearance of comedian Gilbert Gottfried (voice of the irritable parrot Iago in the film).

Director Williams captures Owen at a transitional period in his life: graduating from college, moving into his own apartment, and even acquiring a girlfriend—though their sudden breakup hits him hard. (One of the more amusing moments sees Owen’s supportive brother lamenting that Disney cartoons offer no lessons in the mechanics of sex.)

Owen has also channeled his fascination with the Disney canon into his own creative endeavor: a story called “The Land of the Lost Sidekicks,” featuring all the second-banana characters he identifies with most closely. That tale is brought to life in vignettes produced by the French animation house Mac Guff.

Owen’s most remarkable breakthrough is his journey with his parents to a conference in France, where he delivers a talk on autism, its challenges, and how he connects with the world.

One question is raised by a shot panning across the young man’s video library, which also includes some live-action family films and non-Disney animated titles. Clearly, some of those movies have spoken to Owen too, but including them in the story perhaps might have jeopardized the doc’s deal for abundant clips from Disney classics.

With his generally sunny nature, optimism, and sometimes startling self-awareness, Owen Suskind is like an envoy between the autistic community and those of us struggling to understand this increasingly common condition. He’s also one of the more irresistible people you’ll meet onscreen this year.

Click here for cast and crew information. Life, Animated opens in limited release on July 1.