Life, Animated – Film Review by Lisa Jewell
Director: Roger Ross Williams
Writer: Ron Suskind (based on the book by)
Stars: Jonathan Freeman, Gilbert Gottfried, Alan Rosenblatt
Adapted from a book by journalist Ron Suskind, this documentary tells the real life story of Ron’s son Owen who withdrew completely from his family at the age of three. Home video footage of the little boy before that age shows him pretend sword fighting with his dad as they mimicked Peter Pan and Captain Hook. But soon, a massive change came over Owen as autism affected his ability to talk, interact and move. As explained in the film, Owen just vanished.
His parents Ron and Cornelia were faced with a very different future for their son and the documentary tactfully shows how their dreams and hopes for Owen were crushed. He watched Disney films with his older brother Walter and by chance, one day, he started to recite a line from the film. It was the first sentence he had said in years – most of the time he spoke gibberish.
Bit by bit, the family learnt that Owen had found a way of making sense of this alien world he found himself in through the characters and storylines of Disney. In particular, he identified with the sidekicks of the films (like Jafar in Aladdin and Sebastian in The Little Mermaid). Slowly and with the help of support services, communication began to be re-established and he was able to continue his education and share experiences with his family.
The film captures this journey beautifully, combining home footage of these early years and animation of what life must have been like for Owen in an autistic world. As the film explains the relevance of the Disney films, it includes clips from them which gives a rich texture to the film. Often the shot flashes between a crucial Disney scene and Owen’s equally exaggerated reaction to watching it.
The journey keeps returning to modern day where Owen is a 23-year-old, equally nervous and excited about entering into an independent life in an assisted living centre. The boy who was once Peter Pan is growing up.
It’s an emotionally affecting film, without being mawkish, because it wears its heart on its sleeve and doesn’t gloss over the realities of autism and dependency. Life isn’t easy for Owen or his family but by the end of the film, you realise that the dreams and hopes for him were never crushed – they just had to change to new ones.