Life, Animated is a joyful film about the true power of cinema. Movies are not disposable entertainment but stories that have the power to inspire and dramatically change our lives. Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker Roger Ross Williams tells the story of an autistic boy named Owen Suskind who re-learned language and found understanding through Disney animated movies.
If this story sounds familiar it might be because you read a New York Times article that went viral titled “Reaching My Son Through Disney.” Owen’s Pulitzer-prize-winning father Ron Suskind wrote a book titled “Life, Animated: A Story of Sidekicks, Heroes, and Autism” which spawned this film. The book was about his family’s “two-decade journey in connecting with their youngest son Owen, who was diagnosed at age 3 with regressive autism, lost his ability to speak, and then developed an obsessive interest in Disney movies.”
After years of no communication, the Suskind’s family discovered they could talk to their son using the roles of Disney animated characters and dialogue from the films. Disney animated films eventually helped Owen regain his speech, and the film picks up as he is about to graduate school and move out of his parents house to live on his own for the first time.
Life, Animated also incorporated beautiful hand-drawn animation reenacting moments from Owen’s childhood, which helps give the chronological retelling of Owen’s childhood more weight while avoiding the dreaded curse of the talking-heads.
Touching, thoughtful and heartwarming, Life, Animated is a very emotional tale of both film and family. Be warned that this film is a tearjerker — I can’t even remember how many times I teared up during this film. In fact, I have to hold back the tears just thinking back at this very moving story.
I know the book was released Kingswell, an imprint of Disney Publishing Worldwide, supposedly because Suskind feared the constant quotations from Disney films would not be easy or cheap to license. The film makes use of many clips from classic Disney animated films, as well as features an animated short film based on a story written by Owen Suskind that incorporates a handful of Disney sidekicks. It would be wonderful if the Walt Disney Company purchased this film at Sundance, as the mouse house could potentially give the documentary a wider distribution than the normal indie brands.