Life, Animated  – A Heartwarming & Empowering Documentary
Some of the adventure stories begin with a mysterious disappearance. In Roger Ross Williams’ uplifting documentary Life, Animated (2016), Ron Suskind – the Pulitzer Prize winning journalist – says, “It was like we were looking for clues to a kidnapping. Somebody kidnapped my son”. But his son, Owen Suskind, the chatty, cheery 3 year old toddler didn’t physically disappear. He was there, disconnected and unable to talk. Owen was diagnosed with autism and his parents were left to believe that their son would remain withdrawn forever in his life. The little boy who is overwhelmed by the very common stimuli of light and sound required some level of patterned structure to live life. Anything that deviates from the strict daily regimen could put enormous stress on him. The parents held themselves with more patience and love than ever, although they couldn’t fully understand their son’s world view. The only thing that calms Owen was old Disney cartoon movies, which he watched it with his elder brother Walt.
One day he spoke in gibberish after watching Disney’s “The Little Mermaid”. The doctors dismissed it as a common thing with autism. Nevertheless, for the parents it seemed like speck of light shining through darkness. One day, the six year old Owen was able to perfectly utter a full sentence after observing his 9 tear old brother Walt’s misery. Owen has related his brother’s sadness with a Disney character. Ron, the father went upstairs to his son’s room held the Lago puppet toy (side-kick character of villain Jafar in “Aladdin”) and in its voice he made a conversation. Owen perfectly responded with a line from the movie. The boy seemed to have memorized all the lines from Disney movies and is able to understand his and others’ life through those hand-drawn cartoons. The story of how Owen reconnected with the world made Ron to write the inspirational book Life Animated: A story of sidekicks, heroes, and autism”. Roger Ross Williams’ retells this hopeful story through expertly designed animations and by tapping into rich undercurrent of emotions. With the documentary Life, Animated, Williams was able to take the story of Owen Suskind further. He commences the film on the juncture of a very important transitional phase in Owen’s life. The 23 year old Owen is about to graduate and prepares to live an independent life (move into his own apartment). He is looking for a job and has a love. But, Owen has to learn to live in a world that sometimes don’t make any sense and only shoves heartbreaks. The parents are overwhelmed by feelings of an uncertain future for their son.
The documentary doesn’t naively offer that it has found some cure to autism or it proposes a shiny vision of how the Suskind family conquered their son’s developmental issues. What we see aren’t as clean, crisp, and exaggerated as in a Disney animated feature. It zeroes-in on Owen’s daily struggles and joys as he explores this blurred, labyrinthine world. The biggest achievement of Life, Animated is its closer-to-life, humanistic point-of-view. Movies generally tend to view people with developmental difficulties from a distance and concentrate on the anguish of those taking care of them. Director Williams, however, keeps the focus fully on Owen. The remarkable interviews with the parents and brother Walt gives us insights on how Owen shatters the limitations placed upon him. But at the same time Owen’s story wasn’t used as a tool for upliftment for the ‘normal’ people (majority of films do that). Williams doesn’t extrapolate his subject’s emotions. He delicately observes the nuanced emotions through which Owen processes everything from joy to heartbreaks and loneliness.
Nothing is sanitized just for the sake of viewers’ upliftment. By allowing Owen to articulate his fears and anxieties, Williams is treating him as just the unique individual like others. The director incorporates key Disney movie scenes to makes us relate how Owen would have processed his emotions. The whole idea of bringing to life Owen’s story “Land of Lost Side-Kicks” takes us further inside his mind. The 2-D animation done by a French animation company (Mac Guff animation) serves as an exemplary bridge to connect with his existential angst. While Williams firmly addresses how art could calm the disturbed, he doesn’t fail to tell how art can’t always be a guide to real life. He showcases how Disney can’t teach Owen some of the essential things to lead an adult life: to have satisfying sexual relationship and self-sufficiency. Elder brother Walt says how hard it is to talk about sex with Owen and jokes it would be helpful if there was ‘Disney porn’.
Life, Animated will strongly resonate with families having children with autism, who feel uncertain about their future. Nevertheless, it is the kind of coming-of-age documentary, sprinkled with some hard truths about life that must be watched by all. Everyone of us who are struggling (or struggled) to forge a distinct identity of our own in this often bewildering society will be able to see Owen Suskind with a empathetic eye and as a source of inspiration. Somehow I feel Owen’s relationship with Disney movies is similar to my (or other movie-lovers’) obsession. On a broader note, the documentary serves as a celebration and an understanding of why we fall in love with this majestic, dreamy medium. Similar to how Owen learned, we too know how we can’t escape from life or reality by just comprehending a fictional world. This is what gives a universal touch to this wonderful documentary. Life, Animated (91 minutes) might have started off as a tale of a boy with autism, but it ends up being the most humanistic portrait of a unique individual.