Directed by Roger Ross Williams
Written by Ron Suskind, based on his book
92 minutes, rated PG
Truth is indeed stranger and sometimes more beautiful than fiction. Life, Animated tells a story that’s hard to credit, even harder to resist. It may offer hope to parents who are struggling to bring up a child with autism. I can’t say, but if researchers from MIT, Yale and Cambridge are looking into what the Suskind family discovered, that’s encouraging.
When he was three years old, Owen Suskind stopped interacting with his parents. A once-happy kid lapsed into complete silence. Doctors said ‘regressive autism’ and warned his parents, Ron and Cordelia, that he might never speak again. The film begins with home video footage of Ron playing in their Massachusetts backyard with a happy, curly-headed little boy, before the condition arrived. It’s intercut with footage of a grown man who looks like the father in the video: this is Owen, now aged 23. The grown-up Owen speaks and laughs, reacts to people around him, is fully part of the world. How did he come back from what one of the family calls ‘the prison’ of autism?
The answer, believe it or not, is Disney cartoons. Before the autism set in, Owen and older brother Walter devoured all of Disney’s animated movies, from Aladdin to Pinocchio, The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Lion King. Owen memorised every line, although his parents did not quite realise that until later.
Ron Suskind is a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, with a number of best-selling books on American politics. When Owen was born, Ron’s career at The Wall Street Journal was taking off.
Both parents despaired as their son became silent. After a year, Owen made some sounds while watching a Disney movie, but the doctors dismissed this as ‘echolalia’ – repetition of sounds without awareness. The silence lasted another four years, until Ron made a discovery. Owen was on his bed reading a Disney book. Ron grabbed a Disney hand-puppet and began to talk like Iago the parrot, the evil sidekick from Aladdin. Owen responded immediately, talking directly to Iago in lines from the movie. They talked for about a minute and a half, before Ron rushed downstairs to find his wife. ‘This was the first real conversation I had ever had with my son,’ he says.
No-one really understands why Owen responded only to the Disney films – and only to hand-drawn animation, not computer-generated figures. Cordelia thinks it may be because the films always stay the same, which is comforting for a child who fears new things. Another theory is that Owen finds comfort in the exaggerated facial characteristics in animation. He can read these with confidence – unlike those of most humans. The grown-up Owen explains that the films have taught him about life’s struggles. He finds many parallels to his own life. He has a line for every situation – except when it comes to sexuality. The Disney animations don’t go there.
Director Roger Ross Williams films Owen in a number of clever ways that take us inside his world. One is by using Errol Morris’s Interrotron, a camera housed in such a way that the person interviewed looks straight into the camera, but sees the face of whoever is asking the questions. Another is that Williams introduces some very beautiful animated sequences – from the Paris studio Mac Guff – to illustrate moments or emotions from Owen’s life. The third is to show Owen relating directly to the movies. At age 23, the first night of living by himself in assisted accommodation, Owen watches Bambi, huddled in his bed. It’s not hard to see his identification with a character who has just lost his mother.
There are dangers in this strategy. The film walks a fine line between earned emotion and manipulative sentimentality. It rarely succumbs, perhaps because we can see that Owen really trusts the camera. Williams insisted on using one cameraman, Tom Bergman, for most of the filming.
Williams and Ron Suskind had worked together in television. Ron is the film’s executive producer, so we may assume a lack of directorial independence, but it’s hard to spot. It’s clear that Ron and Cordelia Suskind wanted to help other parents and protect their son. They’ve done that, as well as get the story out. It’s a remarkable, moving, captivating story. And Disney deserves praise for allowing the use of so many clips. Why wouldn’t they? No-one has ever found a better use for their movies.