We screened this unbelievably moving, poignant and beautifully made documentary at the Chicago Critics Film Festival --- which is a huge reason enough to make sure you attend next year! "Life, Animated" is an exemplary example of this type of filmmaking --- it informs in a manner which all moviegoers can relate to by highlighting an important topic in a meaningful yet entertaining way.
Owen Suskind at the age of three just stopped talking. Afflicted with autism, Owen was unable to communicate in any way with his family and others. He was, however, totally immersed in classic Disney films like "The Little Mermaid" and "The Lion King". Through many repeated viewings Owen begins to relate to the complexities of the Disney characters and how their problems are similar to his own.
"Life, Animated" also contains another form of drawn storytelling, with the art form used to depict Owen's life. Based on the New York Times bestseller by Owen's journalist father, Ron, everything about this incredibly inspirational tribute is accomplished with the utmost care and professionalism.
Owen is a remarkable young man. He is deeply loved by his uber-supportive parents, older brother and friends. He conducts a group devoted to Disney films, even receiving a surprise visit from Gilbert Gottfried, the voice of Iago in "Aladdin". But the ultimate pinnacle of "Life, Animated" comes when Owen gives a brilliant speech at a conference on autism in France. If this doesn't move you, you cannot have a heart.
There is not one false step in "Life, Animated". Nor is it possible to make a negative comment. It is a splendid documentary about a very important reality for many people.
Opinion: Strong See It Now!
When their son Owen was three years old, Cornelia and Ron Suskind took him to a pediatrician because the boy had stopped communicating. A second visit to a specialist informed the couple that Owen might never speak again because he was autistic. "Life, Animated" is the emotional and superbly told story of the family's struggle for the past 20 years.
If you are the parent of an autistic child, this fascinating documentary should fill you with renewed optimism for a bright future. As Cornelia and Ron get older, they realize they won't always be around. Their biggest fear is that Owen will not be able to live independently. But when he moves into an assisted living apartment of his own, Owen's life changes forever, and his parents can dare to believe their son will be okay after they're gone.
If you're not the parent of an autistic child, and/or don't know anyone who is, "Life, Animated" will give you a clear vision of what autism is all about. It's a moving portrayal told from many angles. I believe you will know Owen Suskind as well or better than any character, fictional or real, from any film, TV show or book you may have encountered.
Disney animated movies have never taken on a more important meaning. For most of us, "Aladdin", "Peter Pan", "The Little Mermaid" and "The Lion King" are entertaining and message-filled productions which are normally considered children's films. For Owen, shown at age 23 in the movie, they are the conduit through which he connects with the world around him.
The key for Owen is memorizing dialogue from the VHS tapes he has watched, and hand drawing characters and concepts from each film. I've always heard that autistic people can be exceptionally bright, and Owen is an accomplished artist.
From as early as six years old, Owen viewed his world as one without friends, unable to understand what others were saying. He was removed from a special school at age 11 because he couldn't keep up with the other students. Yet he adopts a personal philosophy that it's the sidekicks in the Disney films that are the real heroes --- "No Sidekick Gets Life Behind" is his motto, and he even initiates a Disney film club attended by other autistic people. A surprise visit from comedian Gilbert Gottfried, the voice of Iago from "Aladdin", is a highlight, one that brings a huge smile to Owen and those of us sitting in the audience.
We watch eagerly as Owen and his girlfriend of two years, Emily, seem to get along swimmingly. When she suddenly breaks off their relationship, his pain is palpable. His older brother, Walter --- by three years --- recognizes his responsibility to Owen now and in the future. But Walter accepts his role willingly because of his unconditional love for his brother.
"Life, Animated" is full of exquisite highs. No scene is more special than the nerve-wracking, intriguing and ultimately inspirational sequence when Owen and his parents are flown to France where he delivers a speech --- partly in French --- to an audience of autism experts. This is the singular part of the documentary that blew me away.
Ron Suskind is a Pulitzer Prize winning author, whose book is the basis for "Life, Animated". He is also the second cousin of famed TV producer David Susskind.
Roger Ross Williams won the 2016 directing award at Sundance for this documentary, and in 2010 he won an Oscar for Best Documentary, Short Subject ("Music by Prudence"). He should make room on his mantle for another statuette.
Opinion: Strong See It Now!