When I first saw Owen Suskind, it was on Comedy Central’s charity show Night of Too Many Stars, where he performed a scene as Jafar from Aladdin with Gilbert Gottfried reprising his role as Iago the parrot. It was pretty cool for what it was, and a good demonstration of how a celebrity can help people. But after that I didn’t think about it for a while. Until I saw this movie.
Life, Animated is a documentary from director Roger Ross Williams inspired by a book by Ron Suskind, a Pulitzer prize winning journalist about his son Owen. Ron and his wife Cornelia had one son, Walt, before they had their young son Owen, who seemed relatively normal until age three. Suddenly Owen seemed to have “disappeared,” unable to form words or move without difficulty. He was diagnosed at that young age with a pervasive developmental disorder and likely a form of autism.
Back then in the 90s, autism had far more of a stigma than today, and the Suskinds grasped for any kind of possible “cure” despite being told it was unlikely. The big change happened after they noticed Owen loved to watch Disney movies with his family, one of the few activities that seemed to calm him. Everything changed when Ron was able to have a conversation with Owen using a puppet of Iago the parrot — accent and all. By using the character, Owen was able to communicate.
The documentary tells this story of the Suskinds and how they dealt with Owen as he discovered his love of Disney animated movies, while also showing the current struggles as he leaves an assisted living facility into a slightly more independent facility. The key is that we mostly hear from Owen, which is crucial, as we hear his insights into himself and his love of the movies he’s memorized. These are what’s taught him how to read and how emotional states are read on people’s faces.
There is a series of evocative and powerful animations set to Owen narrating a story he wrote that’s overwhelmingly full of metaphors. It’s all about Owen casting himself as the protector of all Disney sidekicks, becoming a sort of doomed hero. The animations are beautifully done, starting dark and constricted, like how Owen might’ve felt as a child, getting slowly more colorful and expansive as the movie goes on, but never without the ever-present darkness.
The movie is something that is paced very well, especially for a documentary, which I often find have problems of being too slow. It’s easy to feel the emotion here, as his parents feel pain, triumph, and joy with the slow work of helping their son. Older brother Walter feels pressure and responsibility, knowing he will likely watch over his brother eventually. But the movie also shows Owen’s rise to be a leader in his own community.
Documentaries don’t have actors, or at least they shouldn’t typically. But they can be powerful and important, connecting with people. I’m a Disney freak, a real nerd of the fandom, and this really spoke to me. I felt that this was a movie that worked really well, and wasn’t about false hope or lies. You know life with Owen will always be hard, but he may get better over time.
And honestly, it’s hard not to get choked up when Owen connects his own pain to a character crying on the screen. I feel that pain when I watch something like Toy Story 3 or Inside Out. Movies have a great power to connect with us, and animations are like a shortcut to that, the exaggerated motions and emotions a way to hit us harder than we expect.
I don’t know what the future holds for Owen and his family, but I do know that his journey to this point made for a very good movie.
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