The documentary genre has a plethora of inspiring tales about real-life heroes overcoming their challenges, each seemingly more tear-jerking than the last. Life, Animated, the touching story of Owen Suskind, easily continues that tradition, and it’s every bit as moving and life-affirming as you might expect. What truly sets the film apart, though, is its exploration of Owen’s special relationship with cinema, becoming something more emotional and universally relatable as it writes a love letter to the power of the movies.
Based on Ron Suskind’s book of the same title, Life, Animated tells Owen’s story in broad strokes, first dealing with the emergence of his autism and his loss of the ability to speak. At a young age, the excitable Owen retreats into himself, paralyzed by his disorder, causing great emotional anguish to his admirably devoted parents. His fervent adoration of Disney films eventually allows his parents to make a breakthrough, as he begins communicating by reciting dialogue from those films. As Owen’s personality reemerges and he moves into adulthood, the film focuses on his parents’ struggle with his impending independence and Owen’s adjustment to life on his own.
Life, Animated is a coming-of-age story at heart, amplifying the typical challenges of growing up through the prism of Owen’s disorder. Owen’s growing pains as he gains autonomy and the ups and downs of his sweet romance with a classmate are elegantly detailed by director Roger Ross Williams. The film is at its best and most moving when it explores Owen’s parents, and the steadfast dedication with which they face his autism. Many of their most difficult moments, primarily during Owen’s long period of silence, are told through heartrending interviews and animated recreations, beautifully sketched by Mac Guff, whose work throughout the film is gorgeous and heartfelt.
Apart from the animated recreations of Owen’s life, Life, Animated makes Owen himself a watchable and sympathetic character. There’s something deeply relatable about his use of Disney films to understand the world around him, and that acknowledgement and celebration of the way movies shape our perspective should ring true to any film buff. Williams draws some beautiful moments out of Owen’s Disney obsession, especially in a touching scene where members of Owen’s school Disney club are surprised by cast members from Aladdin.
Life, Animated is light on any serious dramatic conflict, but agreeably so, skillfully telling the story of Owen’s life by weaving interviews, documentary footage, home videos, and gorgeous animation together for maximum effect. The footage of Owen’s family discussing their struggle with his autism is emotional and gripping, especially as his parents detail the period when he couldn’t speak. The film’s animated sequences, however, are easily the most vivid and visually compelling, and it’s in these scenes that Life, Animated transcends the levity of its storytelling and becomes something truly special.
In his childhood, Owen writes a story about Disney sidekicks in search of a hero, finding kinship with those second fiddles instead of the more traditional leading men. That story is eventually animated by the filmmaking team, giving the second half of the film an energetic stylistic thread, and there’s something truly inspiring about seeing Owen emerge as the hero of his own story. Ultimately, the film exposes something that only good, heartfelt documentary filmmaking can accomplish, the way that an unlikely and unconventional hero can be built through simply turning a camera on them. Owen Suskind is a fantastic character, purely likable and sympathetic, and the fact that Life, Animated makes a hero of him renders this slight but sweet film a triumphant reminder of how powerful documentaries can be.
Life, Animated will be in theaters later this summer.