Life, Animated: To Be Free, by David Bax
When you think of a documentary, you don’t necessarily think of a movie as being driven by its lead. Owen Suskind, however, the subject of Roger Ross Williams’ Life, Animated, is so charming and funny a central figure that he keeps the movie afloat even when it’s trafficking in superficiality
Owen is autistic. For the first few years of his life, there were no symptoms of his disease but, suddenly, he stopped talking. And he didn’t talk for a long time. Eventually, though, his parents discovered that what sounds he did make were quotes repeated from the Disney animated features he watched on repeat. By meeting him on the common ground of these cartoons and speaking to him in voices such as that of Aladdin‘s Iago, his family led him to emerge and to eventually become the vibrant young man he is today.
The film’s footage of young Owen serves as documents that testify to the life of an autistic boy. In many ways, the early parts of Life, Animated serve as a sort of autism case study. Williams also introduces stylistic flourishes, like garbling the sound and providing animated approximations of his point of view, placing us within the trapped mind of an autistic child.
In addition to those clips, Life, Animated includes a bevy of scenes from Owen’s favorite Disney movies, implying that the famously protective studio was rightfully cooperative with Williams’ film.
But back to Owen and his position at the film’s forefront. Williams deftly balances the very human comedy that comes with Owen’s social awkwardness with poignancy, drawing lots of laughs without ever being cruel. An attempt by Owen’s older brother to have a sex talk with him is an endearingly fruitless effort. But, we come to realize, that just Owen’s personality. His journey into adulthood may be complicated by his autism but his life is not a tragedy. He’s every bit as vivacious as those dancing, singing characters in the movies he loves.