Movie Name: Life, Animated
Studio: Motto Pictures
Release Date(s): July 1, 2016
MPAA Rating: PG
When Owen Suskind began to retreat into his own world as a child, his parents learned that Owen was autistic. Unable to reach him through traditional means, his parents discovered that their son could reach out through his love of Disney films. Using the characters and situations in the film to express his emotions, Owen began to come out of his shell…but learning to communicate is only one step in the challenge facing Owen.
Directed by Roger Ross Williams, Life, Animated is a documentary feature based on Ron Suskind’s book Life, Animated: A Story of Sidekicks, Heroes, and Autism. The film was released to critical acclaim and received an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Feature.
With autism in our family, there is something in the eyes of kids with autism…you can see it, sometimes even in still images. I didn’t really have to read the description of Life, Animated to guess what it was about…I could tell it from the picture on the cover.
Many people with autism have a fixation and Owen Suskind is no different in that sense. What is interesting is how his parents and Owen used that fixation to bring Owen out of the trap his mind was in. The love of Disney allowed him to not only express himself but allowed people like his parents and brother to talk to him. Moments where Owen gets to meet idols like Jonathan Freeman and Gilbert Gottfried (who both voiced characters in Aladdin) show how celebrities have the ability to really help people with challenges because of what they mean to them.
The second part of the movie is about the challenges of having a growing child with autism. Though Owen would have been a good kid growing up, Owen himself even begins to realize that he can’t be like Peter Pan. He has to learn to shave and take care of himself because his parents won’t always be there. Moments with Owen’s brother shows his own fear of how he can continue to take care of his brother once his parents are gone.
However, the Suskinds are lucky. It appears they have the means, the money, and the time to help Owen cope with the challenges in his life. This isn’t true in most cases. Owen is rather high functioning…imagine if he wasn’t. Imagine, if you were a parent that couldn’t afford to support Owen in his own home and connected enough to take him to a seminar in Paris. This is Owen’s story but it isn’t the story of many people with autism.
Beyond this problem, there is some criticism of the Disney tie to the film. That isn’t a problem for me. If a kid wants Happy Meal toys, and it helps him communicate, give him Happy Meal toys…I don’t care if McDonald’s is the focus. The movie focuses on Owen’s love of Disney, but it can be assumed that he loves other animated films as well…Disney is the number one maker of animated films, so it is Owen’s number one film he focuses on. Reaching autistic kids and getting them to open up helps people understand and reach more kids…Disney is the means for Owen and that if he likes to imagine his life a happy, animated feature, that doesn’t bother him.
Life, Animated is a personal look at a family dealing with autism. It is an idealized look at a challenging situation in that (for the most part) seems to have turned out the best possible results considering the difficulties it presents. This isn’t really a study of autism itself, and that must be remembered when watching it. Life, Animated is about some of Owen’s challenges and through understanding one person, more can be reached.