LIFE, ANIMATED (Movie Review)

*** out of ****
Rated PG 
(for thematic elements, and language including a suggestive reference)
Released: July 1, 2016 limited; expands throughout July and August
: 89 minutes
Director: Roger Ross Williams
Starring: Owen Suskind, Ron Suskind, Cornelia Suskind, Walt Suskind

Art has a way of working miracles. It may not cause the lame to walk but, in the case of young Owen Suskind, it inspired one mute child to speak.

Life, Animated is an emotional primer on understanding (and humanizing) autism. This moving and enlightening documentary tells the remarkable true story of how classic Walt Disney movies helped two parents make a communication breakthrough with their autistic son.

Imagine the struggle of raising a toddler who’s only been able to mumble gibberish for over three years. Then suddenly, out of nowhere, that six-year-old boy begins to verbally express his thoughts and feelings by quoting Disney dialogue – verbatim.

Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Ron Suskind first shared his family’s miraculous story in a 2014 New York Times article that went viral, and later expanded that into a best-selling memoir. Now, Academy Award winner Roger Ross Williams (2010’s Best Documentary Short Music by Prudence) chronicles those events – and what has since followed – in his latest feature project Life, Animated.

Ron and his wife Cornelia recount the emotional roller coaster of their discovery, starting at the moment they realized Owen was trying to have a conversation by repeating a line from a Disney movie. Owen (now a young adult with a developed vocabulary, but still limited aptitude) also shares the events from his own perspective, and what it is about Disney movies that empowers him to frame the world in a way that he can understand.

It’s intriguing to see the clips that Owen references when processing certain phases of life (like graduation), or the characters and archetypes he identifies with and how he sees himself in relation to them. It’d make for a fascinating (and even highly marketable) Disney movie in its own right.

Williams’ filmmaking is rather plain, even for a documentary, but the substance is the thing here (not the style), and occasional animated sequences do provide some creative flourishes. More importantly, the Disney canon’s transformative power on Owen evokes the far-reaching possibilities of art itself, far beyond what anyone could predict or dream. (Gilbert Gottfried could never have known what a profound impact his work as Iago would have when he first mugged those squawky riffs in an audio booth over a generation ago.)

Like a grown man-child, Owen still needs assistance to live. But for as corny as it sounds, we could learn more from him than he’ll ever need to learn from us. It’s a cliché that also has the virtue of being true. Autistic people like Owen Suskind may never have the cognitive capacity of those who aren’t “on the spectrum”, but they have an innocence that most of us have lost. It’s the kind that makes the world a better place.

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