Movie Review - Life, Animated

Owen Suskind is 23 and he's autistic. He's high-functioning. He occasionally needs help but for the most part, he's able to live alone. He has his own apartment and he has his own job. As with a lot of movies, specifically documentaries about people with autism, the fear when he's first diagnosed at age 3 is that he won't be independent. What alleviates his family's fears is an obsession of Owen with Disney movies that allowed him to communicate with his parents, specifically his father, when initially he couldn't.

Owen would watch Disney movies over and over. He memorized them line-by-line and identified with a lot of the characters. He would parrot the dialogue in the movies. The first was Ursula's dialogue in The Little Mermaid (1989). Ironically, he was able to talk to his dad when his dad pretended to be Iago, the parrot bird in the film Aladdin (1992). Supposedly, his obsession with the movies and his family engaging him on it allowed Owen to breakthrough his autistic stumbling blocks at least when he was younger.

Directed by Oscar-winner Roger Ross Williams (Music By Prudence and God Loves Uganda), we mostly follow Owen on his day-to-day as he graduates from school and moves away from his parents to live by himself. Owen and his parents, along with his older brother Walt, comment on their experiences through all this and through Owen's childhood. However, there aren't a lot doctors, scientists or autism experts, so how or why these Disney movies play the role they play in Owen's life isn't really explored.

If there is any criticism of this movie, it's how much it's like propaganda or PR for Disney's animated library. You walk away from it almost believing in the magic of Disney's cartoons to cure autism or at least bridge major gaps. Williams seems to want to be a fly-on-the-wall. If he questions his subjects, it's only to reinforce things we could guess or that would be obvious, which is fine. Often, even the obvious is overlooked. In such, he covers bases that aren't usually covered, not even in other autism movies like the recent Wizard Mode on Vimeo. One of those bases includes the topic of sex.

However, Williams never asks the question of why Disney cartoons. If Owen had been exposed only to Warner Bros. cartoons or the so-called Looney Tunes, would Owen and his family not be where they are now? Is there something special about the Disney cartoons that other animators or animation companies like DreamWorks, Blue Sky or Laika can't do for Owen? What are Owen's thoughts about Charles Schulz, Hiyao Miyazaki, Sylvain Chomet or Bill Plympton?

Another criticism is that Owen starts a Disney club where fellow autistic, young people attend to watch Disney movies and bond. Yet, Williams has no real interest in those other autistic people. The focus is squarely on Owen, which again is fine, but we get no sense of context of how Owen has been helped with all this Disney stuff, as compared to other autistic people. Owen even has an autistic girlfriend named Emily, but this movie even has no real interest in getting to know her.

Nevertheless, this movie has a lot of great moments. Owen is such a great person. He's sweet and nice. His passion for the movies, Disney or otherwise, is very endearing. If only to watch Owen who is a delight to see on screen, even when he's watching a screen himself, this movie is one to check out.

Four Stars out of Five.
Rated PG for language that has a suggestive reference.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 31 mins.


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