LIfe, Animated (2016): Just Your Voice (Review)

Owen Suskind

I am well known for getting tearful at any well done heart tugging scene in a film, or even television. It is not often, however, that I break out in tears while watching a documentary. Yet this is precisely what I did while sitting alone in the back booth of my local diner.

Hiding my MacBook Pro from prying eyes, it was here that I sat  watching the screener for Life Animated, when the Ariel moment towards the start of the documentary takes place.

In “The Little Mermaid” Ariel has just made her deal with Ursula the sea witch for legs. All she has to give up in return, sings Ursula, is her voice. To Owen Suskind, the subject of this documentary, the line of Ursula’s gloating song was a trigger. The youngster who, until then, spoke gibberish, repeats the scene and  his translation of the line, several times.

Ron, Owen’s father makes the connection and he is elated. His son is still in there, inside that Autistic shell, a thing that has enveloped his boy and changed him into a non-communicative stranger.

As that lightbulb goes off over Ron’s head, I cried like a baby. What parent would not?  The tale of a family who used Disney films to create a language that their autistic son could use to communicate, is easily the best “feel-good” documentary of 2016.

It is one that any family who watches Disney films as a unit, where everyone from grandma to the littlest family member gets involved with the drama, action and the stories, will be drawn to.

They will also understand the deeper magic beneath the animation and the songs. How the communicative storylines discovered by a young boy and his parents enabled a family to speak with their son after years of frustration.

Life, Animated bounces to and fro. We see Owen now, as a young adult, making his first faltering steps to freedom.  He is excited at the prospect but also worried. His gal pal from the Disney Club will be moving in above him.

We will be, says Owen, neighbors in love.

The flashbacks, apart from one family film where Ron plays Captain Hook to Owen’s Peter Pan, are made up of hand drawn animation. Pen and pencil sketches that capture the essence of the young Owen brilliantly.

The older Owen runs a Disney club which he says was started partly to help him make friends. It worked, he says gleefully, and it also enables him to interact with his childhood hero, Jonathan Freeman. The actor who voiced Owen’s favorite character’s partner in crime: Jafar, amongst a bevy of other roles became a family friend.

The young man shows off Freeman to his chums in the Disney club and while Owen voices Iago, Gilbert Gottfried, who voiced the parrot in the films, arrives. Owen is beside himself with excitement.

It is all too easy to give the Disney films all the credit for Owen’s progress, but as Ron implies early on, the clever and interactive little boy was always inside that autistic shell. Disney, through the means of its animated dialogues, allowed that boy to be reached by his family. It also allowed Owen to talk with those he loved.

Based upon the book by Ron Suskind and directed by Roger Ross Williams (in what is his third feature length documentary) Suskind senior narrates the film. He has some help from  his wife and Owen’s older brother who take the audience down memory lane.

The family, and Owen, show us what  life was like pre-Disney, and post-Disney.  Using the films and memorizing the dialogue enabled Owen to relate to real life issues with a language he not only understood, but could use as his own.

This award winning film is a “must-see” for anyone who loves Disney animated films. The idea that these classics, that already speak to the inner child in all of us, helped a young autistic boy to not only communicate with everyone but also allowed him to learn some real life lessons along the way.

Life Animated is a full five star treat of a documentary.  Those tears that pop up at the very start will reappear several times throughout the movie. Keep your tissue-box or hanky handy.

On a sidenote: If you’ve never been a fan of either Freeman or Gottfried before this film, you will be by the finish.

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Author: Michael Knox-Smith

World traveler, writer, actor, journalist. Cinephile who reviews films, television, books and interviews professionals in the industry. Member Nevada Film Critics Society

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