When Owen Suskind was three years old, he developed autism. It was rapid and devastating - Owen lost the ability to talk and his motor skills deteriorated. His worried parents sought medical advice and were frustrated with the responses - back in the 1990s, autism was little understood. Owen's family struggled with his illness until they discovered something extraordinary: by watching Disney movies, which Owen had always loved, Owen could speak to them, express what he was feeling, and make sense of the world around him.
Life, Animated begins with Owen in his early twenties. He is preparing to move out of his group home and into an apartment by himself. At the outset of the film, Owen is walking along the street mumbling what seems like gibberish. But as the backstory of Owen's condition is told, it becomes clear that Owen is quoting lines from Disney films. His family tells the story of Owen suddenly talking after years of being silent, what they thought was nonsensical muttering was actually lines from Aladdin.
But Owen's current struggle, entering adulthood and independence, remains a huge challenge and the film follows along as his parents Cornelia and Ron and brother Walt, all try and prepare for the change - including a comical scene with Walt trying to give Owen the birds and the bees talk (rather unsuccessfully) over a game of mini-golf. We see Owen having to deal with everyday things - managing his house, trying to get a job, and navigating his relationship with his girlfriend, Emily. All the while, Owen still relies on Disney movies to make sense of the world - during his first night in his apartment, he curls up in bed watching Bambi.
Directed by Roger Ross Williams, Life, Animated tells an extraordinary story very well. The notion that Disney movies act as a conduit between Owen and the outside world is remarkable and Ross Williams has told the story brilliantly, splicing Disney clips through the film, as well as incorporating original animations showing the difficulties Owen experienced as a child and the challenges he faces as a young autistic man.
This is classy documentary making, honest and illuminating. It doesn't go in for trying to tug at heartstrings or over-exaggeration. There's just no need, Owen's story is too good.