“Life, Animated” (2016)
Running Time: 92 minutes
Directed by: Roger Ross Williams
Featuring: Jonathan Freeman, Gilbert Gottfried, Alan Rosenblatt, Owen Suskind, Ron Suskind
Alan Rosenblatt: “The image of autism in the early 90’s was not terribly flattering.”
Documentaries highlighting hardships in life are not new and the way people cope with these things are ripe subject matter, particularly when they are unique as well as having the potential ability to help others. In this case Roger Ross Williams takes a story about a man with autism who copes using Disney animated films as a conduit for life as well as communication with his family and potential friends and peers. This is a film well worth seeking out as well as meeting a family that are loving towards their son and brother, as well as coping with some pretty serious issues.
Owen Suskind was a boy of considerable promise, until he developed autism at the age of three. As Owen withdrew into his silent state, his parents almost lost hope that he would find some way to meaningfully interact with his world. However, that way was found through animated films, especially those Walt Disney Pictures, which provided Owen a way to understand the world through its stories to the point of creating his own. This film covers the life of Owen and how he manages to become as functional as possible with the help of Disney and his families to the point of having his own life. However, Owen soon learns as well that there is more to real life than what Disney can illustrate in animation even as his family prepares itself for an uncertain future with him.
This documentary is one of five nominated for Best Documentary at this years Academy Awards and while I see the appeal of the movie, I am not sure it is one of the best of the year. This may sound harsh but this is a very documentary but it has a few weaknesses that detract from the overarching original and inspirational story.
As a film lover I have always been a fan of animated films and the Disney oeuvre of course stand out as milestones in the genre, they have since seen the challenge of other studios as well as the increased popularity of computer animation, the waning of the musical and now, in the past ten years, there has been a resurgence in their overall popularity. This film has many clips from the most popular and “classic” Disney films, while I watched I could not help but think this was a bit of an advert for their back catalog. Now, this is cynical and a little unfair but feelings are feelings.
The crux and best part of this documentary are the first third where we learn about Owen and his family –the hardships and the breakthroughs. When watching a documentary about this and in particular with someone who has challenges with the outside work i always ask the question: “What happens when the parents are either unable to look after their child, or pass on?” In this case the parents are extremely pragmatic, and deal with Owen in a loving respectful way – I wont go into it here, as there are still story elements that are better revealed watching the film.
The main issue is that in the last two thirds the film and film-maker seem to run out of plot and narrative devices and so its turns into a reality TV like documentary which for me is not compelling at all. My feeling was it was still enjoyable but with autism as the central hurdle with Owen I wondered if he would behave differently if the camera was not in his face all the time. There also seemed to be some obstacles that were “created” for atmosphere and to keep an audience interested – again that was my feeling.
I would still recommend this documentary because it does show the power of film (which I love) and how it can be a transformative experience, and opens a new world in ways we don’t even realize. Movies have only been in existence for just over a hundred years, we as audiences and creative are still exploring and discovering what the moving image is capable of.
This DVD is released on 9th March 2017.