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By Daniel Lammin
25th September 2016

Cinema has always possessed the power to move, to entertain and to inform audiences, making it arguably the major art form of our time. But it's not often we talk about its potential to help and heal a person. We still mostly see it as a form of disposable entertainment, and the idea that it can have significant positive consequences on people’s lives would be foreign to most audiences. I’ve always had a passionate love for Disney animated films - as a kid, I found myself identifying with them to get through difficult times and as an adult, I keep returning to them for artistic inspiration. However, for the Suskind family, the subjects of Roger Ross Williams’ acclaimed documentary ‘Life, Animated’, these films have literally changed their lives in a way that no one could have predicted.

The film focuses on their 23-year-old son Owen, who was diagnosed with autism at a young age. In the present, we follow Owen as he prepares to live out of home and by himself for the first time and the challenges he has to overcome, but we also follow the story of how he got here. Following the onset of autism at the age of three, Owen could no longer function socially or even talk. The only thing that seems to excite or connect with Owen were animated films - particularly Disney films - and to the surprise of his family and his doctors, Owen begins to use the characters, stories and dialogue of the great Disney classics to begin to talk.


Crafted with tremendous care and bouncing energy, ‘Life, Animated’ is a boundless celebration of human determination and the power of cinema. The scope and importance of Owen’s story is apparent in every frame, not just for the loving way Williams has approached telling that story, but with the level of detail it gives us about Owen himself. He’s a captivating, remarkable young man, all the more so because he has no idea how remarkable he is. The Suskind family documented their son’s lives with hours of home video footage, so we’re offered a glimpse into the decline of Owen’s health and its subsequent slow and steady rise, offering us a point of reference to understand how far he’s come. Williams also goes to great lengths to explain exactly what autism is, in a way that’s clear and highly affecting. There’s always been a tremendous amount of misinformation and miscommunication about the intricacies of this condition, and one of the great achievements of ‘Life, Animated’ is the respectful yet uncompromising way that it lays out what autism actually is.

Owen’s family also speak with great clarity about it and their experience with Owen, but perhaps the most valuable perspective is Owen’s himself, who uses examples and tropes from Disney films to explain the way his brain works and the way he sees the world. Williams compliments their observations with not only footage from many great Disney films (kudos to the studio for allowing them to be used), but also breathtaking original animated sequences that bring to life Owen’s own stories and imagination. They give a distinctive texture and emotional punch to the film, and lend the film an unexpectedly magical quality.

‘Life, Animated’ is a boundless celebration of human determination and the power of cinema.

Perhaps the most powerful element of ’Life, Animated’ is how beautifully it demonstrates the care and attention given to sufferers of autism to help them become functioning members of society in a way that acknowledges their disadvantages and celebrates their better qualities. At no point do Owen or his family ask for your sympathy, only your understanding, and watching him overcome challenge after challenge with his unique perspective through animated films is often a wonder to behold. Best of all, we see Owen’s determination to help others like him, teaching the way he uses Disney to access the world to his peers and friends.

‘Life, Animated’ is a beautiful little film, one that captures the successes and failures that face this young man and his family as they navigate around the challenges of autism in the only way they can. Roger Ross Williams has crafted a gentle, highly original documentary, one that is destined to become something of a classic. Personally, I found ‘Life, Animated’ an endlessly moving experience. To see these Disney films have such an enormous positive effect on those with such a devastating disadvantage, give them such enormous joy and help them achieve their potential as human beings brought me to tears time and time again. I’ve always believed in the power of cinema to do good in the world and in the integrity of these films to educate, inform and inspire, but it’s quite something else to see those things in action in the way they do in Owen and his family’s life. As a fellow Disney fan, I am so grateful to know Owen’s story and see it played out in such a beautiful film, and now those animated classics sitting on the shelf just feel that little bit more important.

RELEASE DATE: 29/09/2016
RUN TIME: 01h 32m
CAST: Owen Suskind
Jonathan Freeman
Gilbert Gottfried
Ron Suskind
DIRECTOR: Roger Ross Williams
PRODUCERS: Julie Goldman
Roger Ross Williams
SCORE: Todd Griffin & Dylan Stark
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