Film review – Life, Animated (Roger Ross Williams, 2016)

‘Life, Animated’ explores the life of Owen Suskind, an American man who, at the age of just three, became unable to speak and interact with those around him. This was a complete mystery for his parents who were desperate to rescue their son from the depths of silence. As he grew older his parents realised that he could communicate through his love of Disney animated films such as The Little Mermaid, Aladdin and The Lion King. Finally they were able to understand his reasoning through the films he began to quote verbatim.

This is a balanced cross-examination. To watch Owen when he’s on his own is a fascinating study for those interested in the condition of autism. He has learnt most of the lines from his beloved films, including facial expressions and accents. Yes, he is nothing short of animated when he’s lost in his world.

There is some beautifully animated moments as we are guided through his inner thoughts in the form of his younger self and his band of Disney sidekicks, including Iago, Baloo, Abu, Rabbit, Sebastian the Crab and Rafiki. These short animated sequences were supplied by company Mac Guff (Despicable Me, The Lorax) and are equally evocative and breathtaking.

But the standout moment of the film is when his father, Pulitzer Prize-winner Ron Suskind, recalls a moment when he first reconnected with Owen via an Iago hand puppet. It’s a must-see moment.

The film may take a look at only one man’s struggles with autism, but the focus shifts from him to those around him: his parents, his brother, his girlfriend, the professionals helping him through his condition. In this way, we see how his autism affects those around him. The result is arguably one of the most important films about autism ever made.

Life, Animated is available to download on iTunes and is also at select theatres throughout Britain.

Note: Roger Ross Williams’s last documentary film was the short subject piece ‘Blackface’ for CNN, which explored the unbelievable holiday tradition still at large in the Netherlands called Sinterklaas. It may be rooted in tradition (as the Dutch argue), but it is also rooted in racism and white supremacy and has no place in a modern and progressive society. 

The film is fortunately available in full on YouTube as below.

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