There are those who will disagree, mostly those who will bristle at Life, Animated's enthusiastic embrace of all things Disney that is at the core of Roger Ross William's work here capturing the extraordinary story of Owen Suskind, whose life journey is captured in a 2014 book by his father, former Wall Street Journal writer and bestselling author Ron Suskind. It was at the age of three that Owen seemingly disappeared both emotionally and cognitively from his family. Eventually diagnosed with Pervasive Developmental Disorder, Owen's challenges appeared to have no solid answers until a family screening of Disney's The Little Mermaid, a screening that found Owen to have memorized some of the movie's dialogue. Before long, the family realized that Owen had memorized and was verbalizing ALL of the movie's dialogue.
It didn't stop there.
It wasn't that much longer before Owen's family realized that Owen had, in fact, memorized ALL of Disney's animated features and, in fact, after a particular dry spell with speaking was able to not just recite the dialogue but draw parallels between the films and his own life. In essence, Disney's animated features gave Owen a way to reconnect with his world.
I know what you're thinking. This sounds like an advertisement for Disney. I get it. I get it. Had the film been released by Disney, I'd completely understand the skepticism. In fact, in what is somewhat rare for Disney, they did actually authorize a large number of Disney clips that are played throughout the film as correlations are made between the films and Owen's life.
So, go ahead. Be skeptical, but the heart-tugging appeal of the story is practically undeniable.
Life, Animated is directed by the Oscar winning director of Music by Prudence, winner of the Best Documentary, Short Subjects in 2010. Heck, Williams should have been no less than a nominee for his feature documentary God Loves Uganda. Life, Animated was also just this week named a recipient of the Heartland Truly Moving Picture Award, Life, Animated has picked up numerous festival prizes on its way to a distribution deal with indie distributor The Orchard and a planned August 5th arrival in Indianapolis. I'm not talking small fests either. Life, Animated picked up a Special Jury Prize for Best Documentary at dead CENTER Film Festival, the Audience Award at Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, the Audience Award at Nantucket Film Festival, the Audience Award at San Francisco International Film Festival, and the Directing Award at Sundance among others.
We spend much of Life, Animated with an adult Owen, now in his 20's and having obviously learned how to live with many of his challenges and having acquired many of the speaking and life skills that the family first began to see come to life through the Disney films. It's the adult Owen who keeps Life, Animated centered on his journey and away from feeling like a self-indulgent cinematic effort. We experience Owen moving into his own apartment, an experience that occasionally feels jarring yet honest. We experience Owen in a relationship. We see own get a job at the local Regal Cinema.
In short, we experience how Owen's family discovered a way to reconnect their son with the world and we see how gloriously it has worked for Owen. Will it always work? Who knows? Would it work for everyone? That's certainly arguable.
It works for Owen and Roger Ross Williams, along with his excellent D.P. Tom Bergmann and editor David Teague, the latter whose work is particularly impressive in weaving together Owen's journey within the framework of Disney's animated films.
There are moments when Life, Animated feels just a tad manufactured, a particularly noticeable trait given the overwhelming presence of Disney throughout the film. While production notes indicate that Disney had no editorial control within the film, there are fleeting moments where it FEELS like they did.
These are minor quibbles, really. They will bother some more than others, though one can hardly fault Williams for sharing the truth of Owen's journey. What was he supposed to do? Change the studio to Dreamworks?
As evidenced by its several audience awards, Life, Animated is a warm and inspirational story that celebrates the human spirit and the power of love and cinema to make a difference in our lives and in the lives of those we love. If you've never fancied yourself a fan of documentaries, you may very well change your mind after watching the story of Owen, his family, a whole lot of Disney characters and a Life, Animated.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic