‘Life, Animated’ REVIEW: Autism Doco Inspires with Positive Tunnel Vision and Disney Love

Image via Madman Entertainment
Image via Madman Entertainment

Whether for better or for worse, Disney has been a childhood epoch of Western Civilization for nearly the past one-hundred years. As with any cultural signifier, Disney can be a divisive thing in both its reception and interpretation. If you happen to love Disney films, they may be enchanting, sweet, inextricable parts of your formative self and beyond, treasures to be passed down and shared with your own progeny. If not, and Mickey for you is the barely disguised veneer of Satan, you may find Disney fare exceedingly white-bread, the sickly sweet vassal of middle class conservatism, the McDonald’s of family fun.

While Life, Animated is not a Disney film per se, it does present a vision and a version of Disney that is very easy to agree upon.

When he was three years old, Owen Suskind lost the ability to communicate before he scarcely had a chance to begin learning. Diagnosed thereafter with Autism, Owen spent years in silent incoherence before being liberated by the most unlikely of means. His family, having observed his obsessive interest in Disney films, began speaking to him exclusively in Disney dialogue and Disney characters. To their surprise, Owen began to reply, and it became soon evident he had completely memorised the dialogue of many Disney films. Using this as a starting point, Owen was rehabilitated over the next two decades, learning to speak and relate to the world entirely through the movies he loved.

Based on Owen’s father Ron Suskind’s bestselling book Life, Animated: A Story of Sidekicks, Heroes, and Autism, the film documents Owen’s story through a series of talking heads, animatic recreations and Disney clips. Meanwhile, his more recent progress is tracked as he enters his twenties; Owen graduates from a special-needs college, moves into his own apartment, and navigates his first romantic relationship.

Life, Animated is a truly remarkable and inspiring story, told in a manner that is by turn engaging, humorous, and sweet ““which is all a good thing, because having to deride it would be like torching a basket of kittens.

Image via Madman Entertainment
Image via Madman Entertainment

One of the most fascinating things about the film is the light it shines on autism in terms of perspective, because typically the condition is something most of us view superficially, from the outside looking in. The film, as much as is possible, presents things from Owen’s perspective, and effectively gives you some idea of how he -or someone in his position- must feel. The Disney-like animated sequences, which attempt to recreate moments and fantasies from Owen’s life, aid in this sense, and are naturally appropriate for someone whose main processing mechanism for viewing the world is through animation.

Perhaps if there is any obvious criticism to be made about the film, you could say it may be too relentlessly upbeat. There is a sense of skirting around the genuine frustration and confusion that must have accompanied those two decades of slow learning that followed Owen’s diagnosis. Not that the film makes it look easy, only that the narrative is clearly skewered towards ‘happy story,’ as opposed to ‘warts and all’ observational documentary. In consequence, there is a vague air of device comparable, say, to movies like Super-Size Me or anything by Michael Moore, where the point is less to uncover a truth than to document a foregone conclusion.

Essentially, there is never a point where you believe Owen may cause rampant destruction or severely endanger his own life; the object of the film is to reinforce the premise it introduces right at the beginning.

Nevertheless, Life, Animated achieves what it sets out to, and no sins of omission can change the fact that it genuinely is inspirational, warm, and full of heart and humour. It serves as a unique story of an inimitable individual, an enlightening perspective on mental health and an example of one person’s will to succeed over cruel adversity.

Disney could not ask for a better endorsement.