Life, Animated by Academy Award® winning director Roger Ross Williams just opened in L.A. and New York, and we had the chance to screen it before it opens around the country throughout July and August. The film follows Owen Suskind, a young man who develops autism at three years old. Owen learns to process his thoughts and communicate with his family and others through his unbridled passion for Disney animated films. This is the best Disney film I’ve seen in quite some time, but it isn’t by Disney (it is from Orchard).
Owen has a normal childhood with dad Ron and mom Cornelia until he turns three. He soon loses his speech, speaking in gibberish and his parents can’t find a way to reach him. The movie bounces back and forth between Owen as a child and as an adult who is learning to live independently – eventually moving into an assisted living facility.
Owen’s pediatrician cannot help Owen, and they find a doctor who can. The first breakthrough is when Owen repeats an Ursula line from The Little Mermaid where she says “just your voice”. Owen’s doctor does not believe this is anything but Owen being a parrot, but soon his dad makes another breakthrough through a parrot puppet – Iago from Aladdin. Ron converses with Owen in a way they hadn’t talked before. And when his brother Walter (I thought the name was interesting due to the Disney connection) seems down after a birthday party, Owen tells his parents that “Walter doesn’t want to grow up, like Peter Pan and Mowgli”. Ron realizes his son is using Disney to make sense of the world, creating a sentence with a complex thought.
Owen does have a hard time in a couple of schools, in part due to being bullied. It seems that Owen has very clear memories of much of his childhood and teenage years. He’s very bright and extremely creative – we see a story that he’s written; we view drawings of Disney animated characters that he’s put to paper (only sidekicks, not the heroes); and we see a card that he creates for his girlfriend, Emily.
What Owen knows about life primarily comes from his memorizing every Disney film. So when his brother Walt talks to him about sex, it is harder for him to grasp because Disney films always end with a chaste kiss. Walt’s talk with Owen seems to mostly fall on deaf ears, because the subject is outside of Owen’s knowledge. There is some deep subject matter in the film, including Walt reflecting on eventually having to possibly take care of Owen in future years. And Owen goes through heartbreak. But most of the film is upbeat and hopeful, and Owen’s progress is nothing short of astonishing. He even makes a speech in France at the end of the film, talking to an audience about autism.
One funny moment is when Owen is packing with his dad, as Owen readies to move 75 miles away to the assisted living facility. How does Owen want to celebrate his move? With several scenes from Dumbo. It is a sweet but poignant moment, and there are many of them in Life, Animated. You don’t have to be a Disney fan to love it, but it does make the film even more touching if you are. And Gilbert Gottfried and Jonathan Freeman make a special appearance.
Unlike Peter Pan, Owen grows up. He may never be completely independent, but he is an adult with a job, an apartment and a variety of emotions when good and bad things happen. He also has a very strong family who loves him and has guided him to the independence he now has, and he’s very fortunate that his family has the means for it.
If Life, Animated reaches your theaters, I can’t recommend more highly buying a ticket and seeing it immediately. The film is based on the book of the same name by Ron Suskind.
Life, Animated is rated PG.
Mousesteps Grade: A-.