When Owen Suskind was three years old, his parents noticed that he was not connecting with the world in the usual ways. His speech was mostly gibberish and his interactions with his family, including his older brother, were troublesome. Eventually he was diagnosed with Pervasive Developmental Disorder, which is thought to be associated with autism.
“Life, Animated,” Roger Ross Williams’s documentary, is inspired by the nonfiction book by Owen’s father Ron Suskind, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. It records the remarkable transformation that occurred with the boy after it was discovered that he could recount from memory entire soundtracks from his cherished Disney animated movies, including mimicking the voices of his favorite characters. Ron and his wife, Cornelia, realized that Owen registered the life around him in terms taken from Disney plot lines. It was his way of making sense of the world and delighting in it.
Because the Suskinds filmed reams of home movie footage of Owen from babyhood onward, “Life, Animated” has a panoramic scope. We take in his transformation right through to the life he leads now – living on his own, surrounded by Disney memorabilia, in an assisted living facility, holding down a job in a nearby movie theater, and interacting with friends. He comes across as a funny, voluble young man.
The film is careful not to endorse Owen’s situation as any kind of breakthrough in the treatment of autism (and, to its credit, the Walt Disney Company has not attempted to capitalize in any way on Owen’s story). What the film is ultimately about is the extent to which love and caring can help turn a life around for a person deemed beyond reach. Grade: B+ (Rated PG for thematic elements, and language including a suggestive reference.)