D: Roger Ross Williams / 89m
With: Owen Suskind, Ron Suskind, Cornelia Suskind, Walter Suskind, Jonathan Freeman, Gilbert Gottfried
In Roger Ross Williams’ moving documentary, Life, Animated, we are introduced to Owen Suskind, a twenty-three year old on the verge of graduating from school and moving into his first apartment. There’s nothing special about that you might think, but for Owen it’s all an incredible achievement, because when he was three years old, Owen went from being an outgoing, happy child to a withdrawn, non-communicative autistic child. It happened virtually overnight, without any warning. But in one, very big way, Owen was fortunate. He had the love of his family: his father, Ron; his mother, Cornelia; and his older brother, Walter. After the initial shock of seeing Owen so unalterably changed, they all rallied round him and did their utmost to make his life as comfortable and as rewarding as possible. They simply never gave up hoping that Owen, somehow, would come back to them.
They had to wait four years, though, for the first sign that Owen wasn’t stranded in his own mind. A single line of dialogue from Disney’s The Little Mermaid – “Just your voice” – was said by Owen at a moment when that particular phrase related to what was happening in the Suskind home. The family began to realise that Owen could relate to what was going on around him by referencing dialogue from Disney movies. What they learned was astounding: Owen hadn’t just memorised certain lines of dialogue from Disney’s animated movies, he’d memorised all the dialogue from Disney’s animated movies. And later, Owen correctly deduced that Walter didn’t want to grow up like Peter Pan or Mowgli from The Jungle Book. By expressing such an emotionally complex idea, and at still a very young age, the Suskinds became convinced that they could communicate further with Owen, and using Disney movies, connect with him on a level they couldn’t have predicted before then.
Fast forward fifteen years and Owen is a (largely) well-adjusted young man on the cusp of leading an independent, adult life, away from his family and on the verge of getting his first job. And he has a girlfriend, Emily (who’s also autistic). He still spends a lot of time re-watching Disney movies, but now he’s better able to make sense of the “real world” thanks to the life lessons that Disney includes in its releases (on his first night alone in his apartment he watches Bambi – the one time the correlation seems forced, even though there isn’t another movie that would fit the circumstance). But even though things are going well for him, Life – animated or otherwise – still has the ability to add to the challenges he already faces…
What makes Life, Animated such an appealing viewing experience is, in part, its refusal to push an agenda. Where the majority of documentaries want you to take sides on whatever issue they’re focusing on, here it’s a different matter entirely. The story of Owen Suskind is an unforeseen triumph against the odds, and Williams is canny enough to show the before, the during and the after of Owen’s descent into autism. He also gives plenty of time to Owen’s family, to show how they felt and how they adapted during the years Owen was growing up. You get a clear sense both of how difficult it was for them, but also how tight-knit and committed they all were, to each other, and to Owen. Just in case anyone might be thinking that Disney are getting all the credit for Owen’s “recovery”, then guess again; his very dedicated family must take most, if not all, of the credit.
Williams tells the story of the Suskinds using a mixture of home movie footage – seeing Owen in his pre-autism years is particularly evocative, but is then trumped by a shot of him standing, just staring into space – talking heads recollections, and traditional hand-drawn animation courtesy of French outfit Mac Guff. It’s this last element that adds a huge degree of charm to a movie already in danger of charming its audience to death, but if that seems like a negative, then guess again. Charm is something the movie has in abundance, and the animated sequences act as further examples of the movie’s ability to bewitch and enchant, and tell the story in ways that talking about Owen and his journey just won’t do.
It’s through these sequences that we learn that Owen is an aspiring writer, with his tale of a hero whose job it is to keep Disney sidekicks such as Jiminy Cricket safe from harm. Mac Guff do a great job of expressing this tale, and also of replicating the world as Owen sees it himself. It’s easy to understand why Owen identifies so much with Disney’s sidekick characters, as he himself has always felt like someone on the outside, not the main hero. It’s interesting, also, that this is how Owen sees himself, as someone who needs to protect others, and the movie draws all this out thanks to some candid on-camera moments by Owen and by his quoting from his original story. From this also, we get a glimpse of just how vocal he is when challenged or cornered, and it all gets too much for him.
While Owen seems inordinately happy, there are plenty of moments where the audience is reminded that he’s really a “big kid” without all the manners or insights that go with being an adult. His relationship with Emily doesn’t go according to the Disney plan, which leaves him adrift, and there’s a wonderful moment where Walter laments the fact that Disney don’t “do sex”, something that would make certain things a lot easier to deal with if they did. There are references too to his time at school, and the bullying he experienced, as well as the dark days that shrouded that period, but again it’s the love and support from his selfless family that saw him through it all, and to a point now where he can travel to France to address a symposium on autism (and make his opening remarks in French).
While Owen’s remarkable comeback from a kind of catatonic autism is entirely worthy of Williams’ attention (not to mention the Disney movie club he runs, and which has two very special guests at one of the meetings), what really makes this documentary special is the love and care and determination of Owen’s family to ensure he has the best life possible that makes this such a moving and often incredibly profound movie. Ron, Cornelia and Walter all deserve the highest praise for how they tackled the issue of their son’s sudden onset of autism, and the moments where their love for him, and their commitment to him, shine through with an emotional honesty that can’t help but bring a tear – or two, or more – to the eye of the unwary viewer.
Rating: 9/10 – with Disney waiving any editorial control over the footage used in the movie, Life, Animated benefits immeasurably from Williams’ considered and astute use of the various storytelling formats used to tell Owen’s miraculous tale; a terrific achievement, and one that highlights the strengths in play within the Suskind family, this is immensely enjoyable, and a movie that makes the term “feelgood” seem hopelessly inadequate in describing the effect it can have on the viewer.