Film Review: LIFE, ANIMATED
Starring Owen Suskind, Ron Suskind, Cornelia Suskind, Walt Suskind
Directed and produced by Roger Ross Williams
Based on the book “Life, Animated: A Story of Sidekicks, Heroes, and Autism” by Ron Suskind
Produced by Julie Goldman
Edited by David Teague
Executive Producers, Molly Thompson, Robert Debitetto, Robert Sharenow
Cinematography by Tom Bergmann
Original music by Dyland Stark, T. Griffin
Score produced by T. Griffin
Executive producer, Ron Suskind
Original animation by Mac Guff
When Owen Suskind was three years old, he abruptly stopped talking, stopped communicating on a normal level, stopped interacting with people, and sadly, frighteningly retreated from the world. His parents, Ron and Cornelia Suskind, were naturally frightened, sad, worried and confused. After extensive therapy, studies and research, pediatricians and social workers determined that Owen had autism.
Then, suddenly, something magical happened one day: Owen started speaking!! But he was speaking on a certain level: He was quoting lines from one of the many Walt Disney Studios animated films that he loved to watch, over and over! But it was a breakthrough, it was speech, it was something, and it was a major evolution for Owen out of his secluded world and back into the rest of the world! Ron, Cornelia and their caring, dedicated and warm-hearted team of pediatricians, therapists and social workers welcomed Owen’s progress, even if he was quoting “The Lion King,” “The Little Mermaid, “Dumbo,” “Aladdin” and other Disney animated films—just any speech, any interaction, any indication of connecting and communicating, was major progress!
So begins the absolutely inspirational, uplifting, enriching and enlightening—and beautiful—story of Owen Suskind and his progress to adulthood in the wondrous, wonderful feature-length documentary from the continually and exceptionally talented director and producer Roger Ross Williams, “Life, Animated,” one of the best films so far in 2016 and a stand-out documentary that surely will be remembered in six months when Academy Award considerations are considered! “Life, Animated” is an emotional, heart-tugging, life-affirming and inspirational film. Based on the book “Life, Animated: A Story of Sidekicks, Heroes, and Autism” by Pulitzer Prize-winning Wall Street Journal investigative reporter Ron Suskind, the film tells the enriching, emotional and uplifting story of Owen, a smart, engaging, talented young man who finds that the animated films from Walt Disney Studios help him understand, maneuver, navigate and figure out life’s myriad challenges. In the end, you will want to stand up and cheer for Owen, his family, his community and everyone in his life and in this wonderful film. “Life, Animated” is a must-see.
“Life, Animated” easily rises above many documentaries by using a multi-media approach to telling Owen’s simple, yet complex, story—Williams wisely mixes live-action, real-life (as real-life as being filmed for a documentary can be) situations; excerpts from many Disney films; an original and moving musical score and music by T. Griffin and Dyland Stark that movingly accompanies and provides context for many scenes and animation sequences; and, wisely, originally and inventively, beautiful, symbolic, sensitive and magical original animation by Mac Guff that perfectly complements the story, adds to the story and provides context for the story—without taking anything away from the story. This entertaining, moving and symbolic combination of live-action, Disney animation and original animation and music help tell Owen’s story in an original, unique manner that lifts this documentary far above the ordinary.
And, of course, the very presence of Guff’s engaging, talented and creative animation—aided by a sizable crew of artists and animators who assisted Guff—is noteworthy because of the over-arching aspect of the main story: That Owen owes much of his evolution, success, progress—and sheer, uncomplicated and honest happiness in life—to animation, specifically, Disney animation! So Guff’s animation is entertaining, symbolic, moving—and a perfect accompaniment to the main story and the Disney films. Together, these elements present a powerfully unique way of telling Owen’s story in “Life, Animated,” and Williams, his producers and editor David Teague and cinematography Tom Bergmann are all to be praised for this unique and inventive documentary.
It’s not giving anything away to reveal that Owen soon breaks free from his early seclusion and blossoms into a captivating, engaging, quite intelligent and, often, profoundly insightful and perceptive young man—that’s not a spoiler because the audience, smartly, is introduced to present-day, 23-year-old, successful Owen early in the film. For the film is not a straight narrative that is designed to keep people guessing about Owen’s progress from childhood to adulthood; rather, the film is mainly a modern-day medical, health, societal, sociological, psychological, philosophical, societal, familial and cultural exploration and examination of Owen’s navigation of the rollercoaster ride that is life for all of us—life’s ups and downs, twists and turns, high points, low points, scary moments, lovely and beautiful moments, and moments that can make a person sick, sad, lonely and in need of love and attention. To watch Owen, an autistic man, yes, but also a lovable, wonderfully kind and approachable man with feelings, emotions, needs and wants like anyone else on this planet, deal with life’s valleys and mountains is to view life itself as honestly, directly, straightforward and unmasked as one could hope for. Owen, among his many positive qualities, is honest and straightforward—and intelligent–about expressing his emotions and feelings, and to follow along on his life’s journey is at times enlightening, funny, sad, confusing, worrisome, positive, enriching, difficult, easy—but also always emotional and inspirational.
“Life, Animated” introduces Owen as a young child through touching, highly personal home movies—a wonderful treasure trove of family history that is just a great record of Owen through the years, in life, for his family, for his therapy, and for a documentary! Then, we are introduced to today’s Owen, a handsome, always-smiling, energetic, confident and smart young man who, at 23, is at that age when he realizes that, as a young man in his early twenties, he needs to break free from the nest, from the only home he’s known, from his lovable, wonderful parents—the love from Ron and Cornelia Suskind, Ron’s wife, jumps off the screen right into your heart—from his equally-lovable and wonderful brother Walt, 26—the love from Walt reaches your heart, too—and, as hard as it all may seem, break out on his own and become independent. Most of the film follows Owen as he moves from his comfortable, upper-class New York home to an assisted-living community home with other young men and women with intellectual challenges, including his girlfriend.
As difficult as it may seem—in the film and in real life—many therapists and social workers and pediatricians apparently recommend independent living for some high-functioning young adults with intellectual challenges, according to the film. Thus, the day arrives in “Life, Animated” when Owen must leave his home and move to his new home. Viewers will be forgiven for reaching for the tissues and dabbing at tears—with intermittent moments of laughter, joy and celebration, also, of course—as they follow Owen on his at-times difficult, at-times joyful, at-times confusing and challenging journey into adulthood as he learns to live alone in his new apartment, search for a job, navigate relationships with his girlfriend and others at the home, learn to cook, and learn about, well, some other things during some respectful but suggestive conversations with his well-meaning older brother!
Owen is one of those people who you cannot look away from, who you want to hug, who you just want to help out—not out of exaggerated sympathy or mercy, not out of an over-extended level of caring because of his autism—but because he so darned smart, insightful, engaging and, well, lovable! And that, of course, makes for a high-level subject of a documentary! Owen is well-spoken, expressive, very aware of the ways of the world, and quite aware of the turmoils, trajectories and tragedies that life hurls at all of us. “It’s not fair!” he says at one point, during an especially emotional sequence in his life—the details about which will not be revealed here—and those three words are the same words most people on the planet say during the same incident in their lives. When dealing with people with intellectual challenges, this film teaches us, with restraint, respect, care, intelligence and love, everyone needs to realize that people with disabilities are people too, and they have feelings, emotions, needs and wants, also—and it’s to everyone’s benefit to help, assist, guide and talk with them, leading to a resolution and a positive path forward as often and well as we all can. That, by the way, is exactly what Ron, Cornelia, Walt and Owen’s therapists and social workers accomplish, also.
Of course, the basic aspects of Owen’s life journey, and the issue of helping and understanding people with autism and intellectual challenges, are just two of the myriad themes, messages and lessons in “Life, Animated.” The main, prominent foundation theme of the film, of course, is Owen’s connection to his precious, beloved Disney animated films. But Owen’s connection to these films, the film teaches us, is not an obsession, is not an unnatural fixation, is not really unhealthy, but a wonderfully positive, upbeat, productive and life-affirming aspect of Owen’s life! For, most interestingly and intellectually, Owen doesn’t just connect with the Disney films on a basic entertainment level—which would be fine enough, on one level—but he listens to the movies, studies them, remembers the dialogue—and, ultimately and impressively—Owen learns from the Disney films. Really learns—as on a film student level. Owen’s thesis-like dissection of the lessons, morals and themes in the Disney films are educational issues that Owen uses to understand and figure out life, and that methodology—smartly—is embraced by Ron, Cornelia, Walt and Owen’s therapists, doctors and social workers. When a young man learns from Disney films about heroes and sidekicks; about heroism in general; about good and evil; about boy-meets-girl, boy-gets-girl, boy-loses-girl—as Owen smartly recites at one point—and about such basic aspects of life as family, grief, friendship, relationships, attention and love—who’s to say that learning about life from Disney animated films is such a bad thing?
And Owen doesn’t just enjoy and learn lessons from his Disney films—he makes the films a part of his life. At school, Owen forms a Disney club with other like-minded peers with intellectual challenges. To see Owen and his friends and acquaintances sit and watch a Disney film with sheer, unconditional, pure joy and wonder in their eyes and on their faces is to see through to their hearts, and moments like that are among many in the film that will have moviegoers reaching for the tissues! Owen even manages to get Disney actors to visit his club, prompting another emotional moment.
According to “Life, Animated,” once Owen broke out of his shell at 3 and started reciting Disney dialogue, the other Suskinds did the same—thus, the family conversed and connected to Owen in Disney dialogue! This would prove to be constant in Owen’s life, as into adulthood, Owen constantly cites Disney dialogue, often for fun, often as a coping mechanism, often as a comforting, familiar and reliable way to make sense of the world around him.
“Life, Animated” is based on Suskind’s 2014 book, and it’s important to note that Suskind’s book was as well-received and well-respected as “Life, Animated” has become, as the film is winning praise everywhere and winning awards, which it should be winning.
“In the memoir, Suskind explains how the family and therapists helped Owen use the Disney stories to relate to real situations, develop ‘inner speech’ capacities, and gradually connect to others,” according to Newsday. According to a Wikipedia account, citing sources from www.autismspeaks.org and from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “He [Ron Suskind] calls this intense interest in Disney an example of an autism ‘affinity,’ referring to the propensity for individuals with autism to develop sustained, self-directed passions in one or a few subject areas. The Suskinds found that these deep interests – long viewed as unproductive obsessions that should be curtailed – are more “pathway than prison” for individuals with autism or other untraditional learners, insofar they use them ‘like an enigma machine to crack the codes of the wider world and find their way forward.’”
Additionally, according to Wikipedia, citing USA Today: USA Today called Owen “every reader’s son,” writing that “For Owen and his family, Disney evolved into his translator of reality. He memorized every line of dialogue in the films and learned, in his own way, how to re-enact each scene, fully loaded with the emotions and the moral lessons embedded in them. And his family, despite the misgivings of their doctors, learned to connect with Owen through Disney as well.”
On April 7, 2014, The New York Times reported the methodology the family created, which they called “Affinity Therapy,” will be studied by researchers from MIT, Yale, and Cambridge University to try to understand the neural mechanisms at work and develop a manualized, therapeutic model harnessing affinities for those with autism, according to the Wikipedia account, citing The New York Times.
Thus, another lesson from the film: The power of the love of a family. To see the love that Ron, Cornelia and Walt wrap around Owen is not only comforting and moving, but a lesson about the importance of love from a family, and the importance of love in general. Ron, Cornelia and Walt are committed to doing everything they possibly can to ensure that Owen succeeds, and viewers of the film will leave the theater knowing that much of Owen’s success in life is due to the love from his family. This love, shown honestly and directly up on the screen, will also have viewers reaching for the tissues! But the tears in “Life, Animated” are always tears of joy, it should be noted.
Another easy lesson in “Life, Animated” is clear: The power of film. Movies are a powerful medium—just like any artistic medium, of course—and they can have an overwhelming influence on the lives of millions of people the world over—of course. But to see the medium of film literally change, enhance, support, guide, influence, help and lift the life of Owen Suskind in “Life, Animated” is to see the power of film in a new light. For in this particular case, film helped save the life of a very inspirational, intelligent young man, and film helped him in his life quest. What an important statement about the power of film “Life, Animated” makes!
Interestingly, one day Ron Suskind makes a notable discovery at home: Owen—actually, a gifted artist, as he can draw very well!—has been drawing dozens and dozens of pictures of animated Disney film characters in a journal. We then learn that Owen has focused not on the heroes of the Disney films, but on the sidekicks! Owen has been drawing scores of pictures of the animated films’ sidekicks. And Owen imagines an alternative fantasy world of sidekicks, and he devises a side story and an interest in sidekicks–again, not on an unhealthy level, but as a side interest in his overall interest in Disney animated films. One theory is that Owen could see himself and his friends who are intellectually challenged as sidekicks in life and in the world.
Except there’s one thing wrong with this assessment. After watching “Life, Animated,” one matter is clear: Owen Suskind, and others with intellectual challenges, are not sidekicks. They are heroes. For as they navigate life’s challenges, sometimes on a level that can cause anxiety at the slightest change in structure and routine, as they work through life’s daily struggles, and as they notch their successive victories in life, with each bridge that they cross safely, with each of life’s victories, they are heroes. People with intellectual challenges have much to teach the rest of the world, and they do so with the same feelings, emotions, caring and love that everyone else has in their hearts, minds and souls. For accomplishing so much in the face of so many mountains of challenges, Owen and his comrades are heroes. They are as heroic as the heroes they watch up on the screen in the Disney animated films that Owen so loves.
So get up, go out, and see “Life, Animated.” And, in the end, stand up and give a cheer for Owen Suskind and his fellow heroes. It’s the very least we can do in life.