By Richard Ades
The first time we meet Owen Suskind, it’s in home movies that show him as a young boy playing with his father and brother and watching Mickey Mouse on TV. The second time we meet him, he’s a 20-something man muttering to himself in cartoon-like voices.
The connection between the child and the man is explained in Life, Animated, a documentary that is both uplifting and heartbreaking. Directed by 2010 Oscar winner Roger Ross Williams (Music by Prudence), it’s about a family’s struggle to connect with a son afflicted by severe autism.
According to Owen’s father, former Wall Street Journal reporter Ron Suskind, the first signs of trouble arose after his son turned 3. Though Owen had been developing as expected until then, he suddenly stopped communicating or learning new language, and he regularly had trouble sleeping.
Ron said he and his wife, Cornelia, tried to find out why, but it was like “looking for clues to a kidnapping.” The Owen they knew seemed to have disappeared.
The only bright spot in young Owen’s life was that he appeared to love watching the family’s VHS collection of Disney animated films. But it wasn’t until Ron made an astonishing discovery that this proved to be the key that would unlock the door to his son’s private world.
One day, in a desperate attempt to reopen communications with Owen, Ron greeted him with a squawking impersonation of Iago, the parrot from Aladdin. To his surprise, Owen responded with lines from the movie. The father soon realized that Owen had memorized not just Aladdin but all the Disney flicks, a fact he used to open up more channels of communication.
Though Life, Animated is about a man mesmerized by Disney tales, don’t expect it to follow a simple path to a Disney-like happy ending. The documentary frankly shows the ups and downs Owen encounters as his family tries to push him toward leading a full, independent adult life.
Romance is a particularly difficult problem. Even though Owen begins hanging out with a young woman he considers his girlfriend, he has no idea what a romantic relationship entails. “Disney doesn’t help with sex,” notes his concerned brother, ironically named Walt.
Helping director Williams tell this fascinating story are animators Mathieu Batard and Olivier Lescot and animation producer Philippe Sonrier, who bring to life the cartoon characters and dramas Owen imagines on his own. A couple of celebrity voice actors also show up in a surprise visit to a class Owen organizes for people who share his challenges.
If the movie has one element that may rub some the wrong way, it’s that the background music is occasionally on the manipulative side. Mostly, though, it’s as on target as the rest of this unique and heartwarming film.
Rating: 4½ stars (out of 5)
Life, Animated (rated PG) opens Friday (July 29) at the Gateway Film Center, 1550 N. High St., Columbus. For tickets and show times, visit gatewayfilmcenter.org.