Life, Animated is a film directed by Roger Ross Williams documenting the experiences of Owen Suskind, a 23-year-old autistic man who learned to communicate and relate to the world through animated Disney films. By merging animation with Owen’s real-life experience, this film sheds light on the true experiences of people and families living with autism in today’s society.
The film begins with footage of a three-year-old Owen playing outside before his autism became rapidly more evident. Williams’ choice in showing this old footage of a young and carefree child is poignant as it is interlaced with Owen’s parents’, Ron and Cornelia’s, reflections on the period when Owen stopped talking. Although the main purpose of the film is to explore the life of Owen, a young man living independently with autism, the initial footage of him as a young boy introduces one of the film’s key themes – the idea that growing up is a scary prospect.
Ron, Owen’s father, recounts the first time Owen spoke since being told he had autism, remembering that as he was watching The Little Mermaid, Owen started repeating the line “just your voice” from ‘Poor Unfortunate Souls’. Ron later starts talking to Owen through the puppet of Iago, Jafar’s sidekick from Aladdin. We learn that through animated Disney films Owen is making sense of a world that often moves too quickly for him. It is no wonder then that the first proper thought-out sentence he says to his parents is, “Walt [Owen’s brother] is sad because he doesn’t want to grow up”. This is something that everyone can relate to, especially as Disney films so often remind us of our childhood. But with the added elements of Owen’s autism and imminent venture into adulthood his love for and reliance on Disney films throughout his whole life is incredibly moving.
The use of hand drawn animation is incredibly powerful throughout the film. As Ron and Cornelia recount their initial visit to a specialist when Owen was three, they tell the story of when he walked from his father to his mother as if with his eyes closed. The audience visually sees this moment from the perspective of a young Owen as the animated hallway wobbles and swerves before him. This is incredibly useful in establishing the way Owen sees the world, and how difficult it must have been for him to make sense of things. Animation is also used throughout the film to tell Owen’s own story where he is the “Protector of the Sidekicks”. Whilst showing how these Disney sidekicks are friends to Owen it is almost as if Owen is starring in his own short Disney film. This is especially powerful given his enchantment and reliance on them.
The film focuses on Owen’s journey, mostly utilising his parents, Ron and Cornelia, as narrators. However, some of the film’s most powerful moments were those involving Owen’s older brother, Walt. It is amazing to see the care and love that Walt has for his brother and how their shared love for Disney helped them bond when they were children and in the present day. It was incredibly powerful to see Walt worrying about his future as Owen’s only relative besides his parents, who he worries about getting older.
“Life Animated follows the story of how Disney literally re-animated Owen’s life and his spirit.”
Life, Animated follows the story of how Disney literally re-animated Owen’s life and his spirit. Interlaced with footage from Disney films and animated retellings of Owen’s own story it also explores how he, and his family, navigate his new venture into independent adulthood. Owen says at the end of the film that he used to think growing up meant giving up the wonder of childhood and Disney films, but now he realises that it doesn’t. It is heartwarming and beautiful to see how he learns this by going through his own difficult experiences as an adult and by looking at Disney films through a different lens. The film ends with the powerful image of Simba climbing Pride Rock at the end of The Lion King, showing how Disney teaches Owen to exist independently and learn from life’s more negative experiences as an adult.
This is a beautiful and interesting documentary that I would highly recommend to anybody who has the chance to see it. Intertwining documentary, animation and Disney, Life, Animated is the perfect film for people of any age, and offers a glimpse into the lives of Owen, Cornelia, Ron and Walt as Owen continues to evolve and learn with the help of his animated sidekicks.