Life, Animated (2016)
Directed by Roger Ross Williams
At the age of three, to the shock and concern of his parents, Owen Suskind began losing sleep, lost sensory motor skills, and stopped speaking altogether. He was diagnosed with autism. The diagnosis devastated his mom, Cornelia, and his father, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ron Suskind, who for years wrote for The Wall Street Journal. But after a year where Owen didn’t say a single legible word, his parents heard him utter a short phrase, “Just your voice,” a line from one of Owen’s favorite movies: “The Little Mermaid.” That led to the discovery that Disney’s animated library opened up possibilities for Owen that the real world—constantly changing and nerve-wracking for someone with Owen’s condition—ever could. And to this day, more than 20 years later, Owen still revisits Disney animated films to connect to the world that helped him find his voice again. “Life, Animated” is that story.
Well, sort of. As much as I hoped we would be treated to a complex story about the intricacies of autism, and how Owen’s communication was significantly and evidentially assisted by the animated films he watched and memorized as a young kid, that period of his life was skimmed over early on in “Life, Animated.” While I was hoping for a scientific treatise on the effects of movies, “Life, Animated” turned into a base-level biopic of Owen Suskind. And don’t get me wrong—Owen is a terrific subject for a movie, and his story belongs on the big screen. But I learned relatively little about the symptoms of autism or the ways it is treated. And while some of the story was told through old home videos, interviews with Owen’s parents, and original animated sequences, the bulk of the film was set in the present day, as Owen graduates from his social skills class, meets with therapists, introduces us to his girlfriend, and gets his first apartment.
And that’s all fine, but “Life, Animated” misses out on an opportunity. Disney allowed the filmmakers the rights to use and show clips from their entire video library, something very few people have such access to. But while we occasionally see Owen watching a Disney movie (usually, a scene that relates to the part of Owen’s story being told at the time), there was ample opportunity to make “Life, Animated” about the part of Owen’s story that sets him apart from even members of the autistic community—his miraculous regaining of normal speech via the consumption of Disney movies. I wanted more of that. Especially since what we get of it is so wonderful. The scene where Ron Suskind vividly and animatedly recalls his first conversation with his son in over a year, during which he had to talk to Owen using a Iago puppet (the parrot sidekick to Jafar of the “Aladdin” movies), is particularly engaging and fascinating. But just when “Life, Animated” gets you on the verge of tears, it cuts away to an unrelated scene. It’s frustrating, seeing the narrative potential. If it had just stayed on message, “Life, Animated” could have been among the year’s best. All the parts were there. Regardless, Owen’s story is a heartwarming and interesting peek into a world few people know as well as the Suskinds, and—though to a much lesser extent than I’d hoped—a testament to the power of movie magic.