Tuesday 28 February 2017

Life, Animated

If there’s one thing that almost the whole world has in common, it’s a love of Disney – whether we’re honest about it or not. The so-called world of enchantment has a place in the hearts of everyone, from the wonder of childhood to the mundanity of adulthood. We can all remember the films we watched growing up, and most of us still enjoy the House of Mouse’s output to this day – the success of films like Zootropolis and Moana prove this point. But for one guy, Disney took escapism to new levels. This is Life, Animated.

Life, Animated tells the story of Owen Suskind, a young autistic man who communicates with the outside world through his love of Disney films. After years of silence as a child, he began repeating lines of dialogue from the films until he learned their scripts word-for-word and spoke only in them. This gave him the strength and courage to come out of his silence and speak about himself, and life, again. The documentary covers many areas of this fascinating individual’s life – we see his day-to-day life now, we’re told what his future may bring and most importantly, we’re told about his painful childhood.

But rather unusual for a documentary, a lot of Owen’s history isn’t shown with a plethora of archive footage. Sure, we see some old tapes of him playing with his father, and a handful of family photos – but fittingly, the lion’s share of his childhood has been brought to life through animation while his parents explain what happened. Owen’s parents, Ron and Cornelia, and Owen’s brother, Walter, come across as a wonderful family – the most loving and supportive bunch you could imagine. The film comes from father Ron’s memoir of the same name, published in 2014 – as equally inspiring and moving an experience as the film.

Life, Animated is an often painfully honest portrayal of autism and dark times within a family. Ron and Cornelia speak very movingly about how they thought they’d lost Owen forever when he wouldn’t speak as a child, and Owen’s struggles aren’t sentimentalised or sugar-coated. Dark days of bullying are discussed – even by the very brave Owen himself. But for every moment of darkness, we are awarded with a moment of true heart and love. Throughout the film, Owen reads a story to us titled The Land of the Lost Sidekicks, which is almost autobiographical in nature. He’s happy to just be a sidekick rather than the hero, he tells us. But through this film, and his story, he is a hero. And he’s someone we can all look up to.

Life, Animated is a heart-warming and charming experience, even if sometimes difficult to watch. The animated segments are utterly gorgeous, the fly-on-the-wall nature of Owen and his family’s life is engrossing and the discussion of his past plays out like a mystery. Why wasn’t he speaking? What changed him? Not all questions are answered on screen (Ron’s book is worth a read for more information), but it doesn’t matter. Life, Animated doesn’t aim to be the final word on autism, nor does it aim to paint it as the end of the world for those who struggle with it. It’s purely an example of how autism’s hurdles can be beaten through a combination of imagination, happiness and strength.

Life, Animated is a rollercoaster ride of emotions – it’s funny, sad and moving. But above all else, it’s inspiring. Owen Suskind, and his family, are heroes. In this dark and messy world, we need people like the Suskinds. Life, Animated will bring you to tears. But luckily, those tears are mostly out of joy.

Life, Animated is a powerful tale of family, love, bravery, overcoming struggles and the infinite power of Disney. 


Sam Love

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