Life, Animated finds Owen Suskind as a young man about to graduate and move into his own place, away from his parents. He is apprehensive, like anyone his age about to embark on something new. It’s all so incredible and yet ordinary, the kind of momentous thing that any family takes in its stride. Except that, for the Suskind’s, life has never been straightforward, certainly not since Owen was three years old and, seemingly overnight, developed Autism, cruelly robbing him of his voice, his personality and his future. His father Ron, movingly describes it as though Owen “vanished”. The future was very bleak for this young family.
And yet Owen took back that future and his voice, thanks to the persistence of his parents, his older brother and Disney cartoons. In particular, Disney sidekicks! Roger Ross Williams’ wonderful documentary explores the incredible story of just how it happened. It’s moving, gloriously uplifting and shows us the power film has to truly change lives. Apparently, when Disney were approached for permission to use footage from their films, the executives were moved to tears by the story and let Williams use whatever he needed. It’s an easy story to believe.
When the Autism took hold, Owen was left unable to communicate and utterly unable to make sense of the world, but he would still repeatedly watch Disney movies. One day, while watching The Little Mermaid he kept trying to say something. His mum and dad thought he wanted “juice”, but then realised he was repeating what one of the characters was saying: “just the voice”. Doctor’s dismissed it as him aping what he hears without really understanding it. A few years of no progress seemed to support that, but then Ron had a huge breakthrough: using a puppet, he held a conversation with Owen, while pretending to be Iago from Aladdin! “What is like to be you?”, Iago/Ron asked and Owen answered.
It’s impossible to understate what a goosebump moment that is. Williams uses a mix of home video footage, interviews and follows Owen as he is now in Cinéma Vérité sequences, but for the bits he doesn’t have, he uses original, beautiful animation. Therefore they can animate what was going on in Owen’s mind, or how Ron was hiding under the bed, trying to hold his composure as his young son spoke to him for the first time in years. It works brilliantly, especially because the sequences sometimes feature Disney characters, but not in the Disney style. They’re almost like what Studio Ghibli might do with Raymond Briggs characters.
As Owen grew older, so did his confidence, so much so he was able to go to school, but bullying sent him right back into himself. Again Disney rescued him. He loved the characters so much that he created a story where he was their protector. It featured none of the heroes and he called it “Land of the Lost Sidekicks”. Williams animates this too and the full sequence is included on the release as an extra feature.
Documentaries such as this normally follow a fairly predictable routine, building the story through the interviews and following the subjects around. Sometimes rambling obtusely and relying on an inexperienced subject to provide a narrative to be shaped in editing, it can be even more contrived if there is no intriguing past evidence to use. Not only is Owen’s story incredible anyway, but Williams honest use of original animation lifts it even further and gives it a structure normally missing from fly-on-the-wall pieces.
Yet even beyond the easy hook of Disney cartoons providing the breakthrough, what really gives Life, Animated depth, and what really saved Owen, is his family. Williams has built a brilliant film that is a testament to the strength and persistence of parents Ron and Cornelia, and brother Walt. They had it tough and never gave up. Still haven’t. They’re inspirational, both as a unit and as individuals.
And what of Owen himself? He still has his battles, like he always will, but his warm, engaging personality and genuine creative talent is a credit to his family and his future is bright. There’s something reassuring that it will be colourful and full of Disney too. The films have given him something special. Mind you someone should get him a set of DVDs. His old VHS tapes take up a lot of shelf space.