Film Review: Life, Animated


We all love a Disney movie. Many childhoods have been warmed by their glow and generations are defined by what set of Disney characters are close to their hearts. For older viewers, the animals of Bambi and The Jungle Book were childhood friends, for the youngest among us perhaps the liberated women of Frozen and Moana provide inspiration. Owen Suskind, however, found more in the Disney universe than most, rescuing him from what his father calls “the prison of autism”.

Oscar-winning documentary film-maker Roger Ross Williams’s Life, Animated follows Owen through an important transitional period of his life. He is to graduate in a few weeks, and as a young adult, is set to stake out his place in the world independent of his parents and big brother Walter. Owen’s Autism presented at an early age and for years his parents were desperate, going from doctor to doctor. However, when he was seven they had a breakthrough. Using dialogue from The Little Mermaid, Owen began to speak again.

Aladdin, The Lion King and The Hunchback of Notre Dame didn’t just give Owen brightly coloured escapism, but a vocabulary and framework with which to make sense with his world and communicate with his friends. Each film has a specific theme that helps Owen relate and Owen was particularly drawn to the figure of the sidekick, fancying himself as the defender of the sidekicks. The story he writes becomes a film within a film, a cartoon in which he is the hero. 
Of course, there are no quick panaceas and Owen’s parents are well aware of the dangers that he will have to face. His older brother Walter is a solid presence, adding some Napoleon Dynamite moments of unattended comedy when he attempts to prod his younger sibling into developing his relationship with his girlfriend Emily – “What can we do? Show him Disney porn?” His subsequent – it isn’t clear if it’s related – break up with Emily is an immediate crisis just as Owen is getting used to the adult world. “Why did this have to happen and make my life sad forever?” he complains, winningly. 
Like The Wolfpack, Life, Animated gives us an unexpected story of how cinema (in both cases via VHS tapes) can provide solace and meaning in extraordinary circumstances. Like the Disney films that serve Owen, the movie does dip its toes in the schmaltz, the ending feels like a gratuitously feel-good triumph, but then again, perhaps we need a little schmaltz in our lives.

Life, Animated is in UK cinemas and on demand from this Friday.

John Bleasdale | @drjonty