Disney films have done many things for us over the years, they’ve made us laugh, they’ve made us cry (thanks for that, Lion King!), they’ve given us nightmares, they’ve educated us, they’ve entertained us, they’ve inspired us. They are a cornerstone of our youth.
But for some people, Disney’s influence goes far beyond the atypical entertainment value. For Owen Suskind and his family, Disney cinema represented a bridge to communication and to ‘the real world’.
Life, Animated is a 2016 documentary directed by Roger Ross Williams based on the novel of the same name by Ron Suskind, whose son Owen was diagnosed with autism at the age of 3, struggling to communicate and retreating into his shell… until his parents – father Ron and mother Cornelia – noticed the extensive detail he was paying to Disney films such as The Little Mermaid and Aladdin (and essentially the entire animated Disney catalogue), helping to move from speaking gibberish, to full cohesive sentences, often using scenes from Disney to emphasise his emotional state. The film takes us through his troubled childhood to his mid-twenties as he continues to strive for independence with the support of his parents and brother Walt.
Admittedly, at some point in our lives, we’ve all had special interests that we’ve lived and breathed as if we were them. But I think we as a society underestimate how influential those archetypes can be on our mindset, and Life, Animated shows that these films were practically a lifeline to Ron and Cornelia, who would take even the briefest parroting of dialogue and run with it in the hope of getting Owen to open up. Their struggle is heart-wrenching for any parent who craves that special relationship with their child, that resonating emotional connection only a ‘Mummy’ or ‘Daddy’ can have, only to go through life thinking you can never have it. Credit has to be given to both parents as well as Owen’s older brother Walt, all three of which immersed themselves in Owen’s world, demonstrating a key lesson all parents should take away from this film; if you want to bring your child into the real world, you must first enter theirs. Seriously, I can attest that for some autistics, it’s like living on another planet, only in real life, you can’t take the Millennium Falcon to go back and forth.
The documentary’s greatest asset – and a riveting one, at that – is its ability to dive deep into Owen’s fascinating mind. We can hear from second-hand experiences about what flows through the autistic mind and we can build up our own perceptions (and in some cases, stereotypes), but we need to actually have it to fully get our heads around it.
At least that was the mindset I had until I saw this film, which is the closest I’ve ever seen anything come to breaking that rule. The film is masterfully edited, integrating Disney clips to emphasise an emotion or feeling Owen is experiencing, such as a story of Owen’s struggles with school bullying intercut with the Hunchback of Notre Dame scene featuring Quasimodo tormented by citizens. But where Life, Animated lives up to its title is its depiction of animated drawings masterfully pencilled by Mac Guff, literally illustrating moments from Owen’s life as well as bringing to life some of Owen’s own stories, most notably in a beautiful short animation in which Owen imagines himself as a protector for all of Disney’s sidekick characters such as Baloo, Iago and Timon. Even though we can only imagine how these films resonated to Owen as a young child, this is as close as we could possibly come to understanding it.
The film also focuses on Owen’s adult life, more specifically his goal to attain something we are all striving – and struggling – for: independent living.
He runs his own Disney club with a close group of people – which once saw guest appearances from Jonathan Freeman and Gilbert Gottfried, the voices of Jafar and Iago from Aladdin, much to the nostalgic joy of this viewer. He would go on to graduate and move into assisted living and even getting himself a part-time job.
Of course, as Owen develops and adapts, this is where we find that when you’re getting accustomed to the ‘adult’ side of life, Disney is probably not the best reference point. Especially as we see Owen cope with his first breakup, a glaring contrast to the happy ending a Disney film would readily offer. This comes as an uncomfortable lesson to all autistic people who have had special pop culture passions in our lives, in that while we can be encouraged and inspired by those passions, we cannot always be defined by them. The film doesn’t pull any punches about this lesson, something director Roger Ross Williams should be commended for, ensuring we can see both sides of the Disney influence.
The film is very brave in its depiction of autism; illustrating that while we may overcome some barriers in our early lives, it’s not an instant cure for all issues that we have to endure over time. And that is certainly the case for Owen. But having spent 90 watching the life story of this extraordinary man, I feel he is making all the steps in the right direction, and for some people, that’s a ray of light for those on and off the spectrum.
A beautiful documentary that doesn’t feel bogged down by Hollywood narratives or ignorant stereotypes, Life, Animated is that rare beast that depicts autism in one of its most realistic forms while also lending itself to the fantastical with its moving Disney metaphors that have, at some point in our lives, inspired us in some way.
Final Rating: 5 out of 5 stars