'Life, Animated': Sundance Review

Life, Animated still 2 - H 2016
Courtesy of Sundance Institute
A documentary gem.

An autistic boy uses Disney movies to make sense of things in this radiant documentary, which premiered at Sundance.

If you believe in magic, Life, Animated is the potion for you. A radiant, uplifting story of an autistic boy who transcends his condition by transferring life's challenges into the format of a Disney animated movie, the film is a documentary gem. It garnered gleeful audience reaction here at the Sundance Film Festival.

Academy Award-winning filmmaker Roger Ross Williams traces the life of Owen Suskind, the second son of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ron Suskind and his wife, Cornelia.

It was at the age of three that the Suskinds noticed that Owen did not behave in a normal way; he communicated in gibberish and didn't connect with his family, including his older brother. A blend of old home-movies and present-day documentary shooting, the film is based on a book written by Ron Suskind and traces the Suskinds' patient and constant efforts to seek help for their son; their love is obvious in the home-movie clips that are interspersed throughout the film.

In medical jargon, Owen suffers from a Pervasive Developmental Disorder, which is deemed incurable. He is overwhelmed by the abrasions and change of the “real world,” which frightens him. Owen finds refuge and sense in Disney animation movies, which he watches over and over.

One day, his parents are astounded when Owen spontaneously speaks to them, reciting Disney dialogue rather than gibberish. Not only could he recite favorite scenes from the films, he could mimic the voices, as well. In particular, Owen identified with the colorful sidekick characters in the films: He rejoiced in those eccentric, funny, crabby and colorful characters that alternately tormented and sustained the main hero. The family's delighted response: “He's still in there.” One recalls that great moment in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest when the non-communicative Chief uttered “Juicy Fruit” to a startled Jack Nicholson.

Intercutting scenes from an array of Disney classics, filmmaker Roger Ross Williams unravels a complex medical condition and reaches into Owen's world. Owen makes sense of the world through the prism of Disney plot-lines; for him, it's a happy place of bold and bright colors.

At the film's conclusion, we witness a now-23-year-old Owen, who has progressed to the point of living on his own in an assisted living complex, surrounded by his collection of animated films and secure that his world is well, thanks to the palliative magic of Disney.

Production companies: A&E IndieFilms, Motto Pictures, Roger Ross Williams Productions
Director: Roger Ross Williams
Producers: Julie Goldman, Roger Ross Williams
Music: Todd Griffin, Dylan Stark
Cinematographer: Thomas Bergmann
Editor: David Teague

Not rated, 89 minutes