Life, Animated ***

Touching documentary about how an autistic boy learned to understand the world through the magic of Disney animated films.

Is it worth $10? Yes

Disney animated movies are beloved by many, but perhaps no family loves them more than the Suskinds in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. At the age of three, Owen began to shy away from his surroundings and stopped communicating. His parents, Ron and Cornelia, soon learned Owen was autistic. For years they thought he’d never speak again, or be anywhere close to “normal.” Then magic happened: Through repeated viewings of Disney’s animated movies, Owen slowly started to understand the world and break out of his shell.

“Life, Animated” tells the story of Owen’s journey, and how he’s managing today as a 23 year-old living on his own. The film is already an award-winning documentary, so if you think it sounds too sweet for even a Disney movie, remember that sometimes truth trumps fiction.

The majority of the film follows Owen, his parents, and his brother Walt leading up to Owen’s college graduation. Owen knows after graduation he’s moving out (to an assisted living facility) and has to get a job (at a movie theater, naturally). It’s his choice to leave, but he takes solace in knowing his girlfriend Emily (also autistic) is moving to the same apartment complex. And he knows, deep down, that he’s ready to be an adult.

In addition to following Owen and the family in their present lives, director Roger Ross Williams uses archival footage, interviews, clips from Disney movies and original animation by artist MacGuff to articulate Owen’s struggle. The basics of autism are explained so the unfamiliar can grasp what the family is dealing with, but the focus is always on triumph rather than hardship. This is important because it allows for a constantly positive vibe even when discussing difficult times, which in turn allows the film to be touching and inspiring rather than downtrodden and depressing.

If there’s a flaw here it’s the slow start coupled with a lack of information regarding how Owen evolved throughout his teenage years. Williams freely juxtaposes moments and images of Owen as a child with Owen today, so he needs to include Owen as a teenager as well. It’s a glaring omission that leaves the audience hanging regarding something it’s bound to be curious about.

That shortcoming aside, what’s most fascinating about the film is its brutal honesty. Ron and Cornelia openly question themselves and how Owen will fare living on his own. Walt understands the burden of caring for his brother later in their lives, and is ready but clearly not thrilled about the prospect. Owen himself endures a personal hardship that he struggles to understand, at which point the shortcomings of what you can learn from Disney animated movies comes to the fore. A lesser movie, and a lesser director, would not have handled these questions with such care and respect. But because Williams handles so much so well, “Life, Animated” is a movie you will not want to miss.

Did you know?
Williams won best director for U.S. documentaries at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.

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