Monday, 30 January 2017

LIFE, ANIMATED review

Now available on DVD is the newly Oscar nominated documentary about the life of Owen Suskind, a young man with autism who found a way to make sense of his condition through Disney movies.



Directed and produced by Roger Ross Williams who won an Oscar for his documentary short Music by Prudence, he once again finds himself in awards contention with Life Animated. We meet Owen at an important juncture in his life. In his early twenties he is about to leave home and move into an apartment of his own for the first time. He is a sociable and capable young man who has used the world of Disney films to make his way through his autism, as previously documented by his Pulitzer Prize winning father Ron in his book of the same name.

Like any normal family a lot of their son's childhood has been captured on video, and this is shown to illustrate how Owen changed so dramatically at such a young age. We flashback to 1993 when Owen was a young boy, playing in the yard with his father, and it impossible not to feel their pain when at only 3 years old, Owen retreated into himself and left his parents clueless as to what had happened to him.

What's clear from Life, Animated is that Owen is fortunate to have such a wonderful family. Ron and Cornelia are wonderful parents that have unique insights that some doctors wouldn't have been able to notice, such as the revelation that when Owen drew Disney characters, he would only draw the sidekicks. It's the Disney films that have allowed them to build their understanding of how Owen feels about himself. He has a poster of The Hunchback of Notre Dame on his bedroom wall not because it is simply one if his favourites; he relates to the Hunchback as someone who is viewed differently and at times ridiculed by society.

Also on hand is his older brother Walt (yes, Disney obsessed Owen's brother is actually called Walt) who says how he's been getting ready his whole life to eventually take over Owen's care. It's clear that he sees this not as a burden, but a show of how closely knit they are as a family. He's concerned about big brother stuff like Owen's relationship with his girlfriend Emily, and how as "Owen's basis for pretty much anything is Disney" he is struggling to broach the concept of sex to him, but Disney porn is briefly considered.

Owen is the complete star of the film, and what he has been able to achieve is remarkable, autism or no autism. Owen started up a Disney club at his school in order to share his passion and make new friends, and he is able to attract special guest speakers at the club to reenact scenes with members, including what is hands down the best surprise cameo of the year. It's a moment so great, it cannot fail to bring a tear to the eye.

Also incorporated into the film are animated segments that act as an imagining of Owen's internal world when he was a child. Rather than being like a colourful Disney cartoon, it's a bleak, stripped back, black and white sketching that completely encapsulates his isolation whilst also being beautifully realised. It is at odds with the charming and lively Owen we meet in the present day, but it works in showing how far he has come.

A film that is so joyous an experience it is easy to adore; it will speak to those who have children who are considered different from the norm, but this really is a film for any parent. You don't have to be a Disney aficionado to appreciate Owen's infectious attitude towards his favourite films (he still watches the same VHS copies he collected as a child), but it's hard to disagree that this does make Disney films and the world their characters inhabit look completely magical.

Verdict 5/5



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