This review was published in the Cuckoo Review in December 2016 here.
Life, Animated opens with a series of garbled sounds. As they become clearer, I recognise the voices of many of my childhood friends – Disney characters. But these voices aren’t from the films themselves, they are the impressions of Owen Suskind, a young autistic man who stopped talking at the age of three. Life, Animated, a docu-film by Roger Ross Williams, is a beautiful animated-film that tells the story of Owen and his family, and how Disney films enabled him to interact with the world once again.
A mix of interviews and home footage depicts how at the age of three, Owen suddenly internalised himself, and stopped speaking. Worried, his parents took him to see specialists. “So let me explain what autism is,” the specialists told them. Distraught, Owen’s parents accepted they would probably never hold a conversation with their son. It is an eye-opening insight into the grief that can accompany severe autism – emotionally losing a child who is still physically present. Autistic people’s brains are not able to process things in the same way as ours do, they are easily overwhelmed, and this over-stimulating world can easily turn into a blur that is terrifying for sufferers of the condition. Old photographs appear on screen, showing Owen hiding from such an over stimulating world as his brain struggles to process everything around him.
In emotionally charged interviews, Owen’s brother describes how watching Disney films with him was the only way he relaxed, and they were able to spend time together. And then, one day, a breakthrough. Holding his puppet of the parrot from Aladdin, Owen’s father manages to have a conversation with Owen for the first time. Owen looks at his father in the eye for the first time in a year. After four years of silence, Owen’s parents begin to aid him, with the help of Disney, to communicate in the real world. Owen teaches himself to read through the credits of all the Disney films he watches. He teaches himself how to persevere when the going gets tough through the bravery of Simba. He teaches himself to express love and emotion through the Disney princes and princesses.
Combining documentary with beautifully lively animations, Life, Animated provides an insight into what life is like for sufferers of autism, and the surprising ways in which they learn to cope with the condition. Owen’s sincerity, and often his hilarity, results in genuine smiles across the whole audience, and often fits of laughter. It is feel-good, yet also sobering as the sincerity of Owen’s autism causes me to reflect on the insincerity of most ‘normal’ people. When Owen graduates, he shouts “Yay, I did it!” and does a little jig in front of hundreds as he goes to collect his award. When his girlfriend breaks up with him, he asks his mum, “Why is the world full of such unfair pain and suffering?” This film on Owen’s life is fantastic, it is a heart-warming must-watch that is as entertaining as any feature film.