For those not familiar with Life, Animated (it is, after all, lesser-known than the other films I’ve written about so far), the premise of this documentary is that it follows and explores the life of Owen Suskind, an autistic 23-year-old whose abiding passion is for Disney films. Owen is about to strike out on his own by moving into his own apartment, but – naturally – he faces some challenges along the way.
Except “abiding passion” is a severe understatement: aged three, Owen stopped speaking in English entirely, and it was only after a year without eye contact or verbal communication with his parents that a breakthrough was made. Owen’s father, Ron, realized that animated Disney movies were the window through which he could talk to his son, and, in character as the parrot Iago from Aladdin, had his first conversation with his son since he shut everyone out entirely. Twenty-odd years later, Owen can (and does) still recite lines from every single Disney movie by heart. He taught himself to read by learning the credits at the start of each film.
I can’t claim to be an authority on autism – and this might expose my own prejudices – but Owen seems far more capable than I had initially expected when I sat down to watch Life, Animated. I wonder if this is partly thanks to his parents, and their long-term investment in giving him a good education and developmental help from experts. Very dedicated, dignified, and thoughtful, they’re a warm and constant presence throughout the film.
Whatever the case, Owen runs a Disney film club, where he and other people with special needs watch scenes from Disney movies and discuss the importance of them, and what can be learned from them. Thus The Lion King and Bambi become parables about the inevitability of having to learn to life without one’s parents; The Hunchback of Notre-Dame is about the fear of public humiliation; and so on. He also travels (with both parents) to Paris to give a speech to a conference on autism, and how autistic people’s love of certain things can help them make sense of the world.
Owen takes on a huge amount of responsibility. In Paris, there is a sickeningly long pause as he stands at the podium, silent, and the room waits in anticipation for him to begin. Is he freezing up? Then he breaks into a loud “Bonjour, mesdames et messiuers!” and by the end the audience is standing in ovation. At the Disney club, Owen banters comfortably with guest stars Gilbert Gottfried and Jonathan Freeman (who played Iago and Jafar respectively in Aladdin), and his satisfaction at the exhilaration evident on the faces of his club members is palpable. Owen is, at least outwardly, a leader.
I can only imagine what it must be like to watch this film with one’s own children. Hardly a talking-head sequence goes by without one or both of Owen’s parents tearing up whilst telling a story about his childhood or the difficulties the family faced together. It’s all the more moving for the fact that generations of people have grown up watching these Disney films – from Bambi to Peter Pan, Beauty and the Beast to Hercules, Dumbo to The Jungle Book, these are familiar voices, faces and stories to nearly everyone, and just seeing clips of them is enough to take one back, for want of a better phrase, to childhood innocence.
Life, Animated is not a perfect film. A whale-song ambient soundtrack and tinkly, twee piano hooks are overlaid on almost every single scene, which can be annoying, and it’s a little over-sentimental, but then it is an uplifting subject. It’s obviously also brilliant publicity for Disney, which we’d do well to remember is little more than a strip-mining corporation for cultural assets. Nonetheless, there are moments of real human insight, often from those around Owen. In one scene, his brother talks about his fears for the future, when he will have to look after both Owen and his parents, and in another – when Owen has just broken up with his girlfriend – Owen’s mother Cornelia’s pain at her son’s distress is agonizingly clear.
Special mention has to be made, too, of the animated sequences that intersperse the film visually, breaking up the standard documentary talking heads and archive footage with wonderful panache. These sequences use the motif of Owen as a child, in a world called The Land of the Lost Sidekicks which he himself created at an early age, to visualize the demons of loneliness and confusion that he admits sometimes worry him. They’re captivating and they don’t feel out of place in a story that sometimes – often, even – feels like a fairy tale.
Life, Animated is in cinemas on 9th December.