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Life, Animated - Cinemaholic Movie Reviews
one person's obsessive addiction to film
Life, Animated
Directing: A-
Writing: A-
Cinematography: B+
Editing: B+
Animation: A-

It's so often the case that the true stories are the most amazing -- such as it is with Life, Animated, a documentary illustrating the way Disney animated features brought a young boy out of a years-long, autism-induced linguistic silence.

If this movie doesn't warm your heart to the point of tears, you aren't human. Okay, maybe that's a little over the top. I guess not everyone gets as weepy as I do over things like this. But this is the kind of story that breaks through the onslaught of darkness permeating our modern lives, and shines a light on the beauty in humanity.

Young Owen Suskind developed like any average child until the age of three, when he suddenly stopped speaking, and suddenly found himself overstimulated by the world around him. He could no longer understand much of what was being said to him. We meet Owen early on as a young man about to graduate, at the age of 23, and he has a clear handle on language. He speaks to the camera and relates his memories of early childhood. So we know from the outset that he broke through his barriers. Now he faces new ones: a long-term relationship; moving into an apartment on his own for the first time (albeit in assisted living). Just continuing to learn how to interact with people on a daily basis.

But getting his far, for Owen, is truly an incredible journey, the makings of the rare documentary with deep emotional impact.

He has one older brother, who, along with their parents, have spent their lives helping him any way they can. They clearly love him with all that they are. There does seem to be a slight sense of privilege. We never find out what either of Owen's parents do for a living, but they can clearly afford a lot of resources that many parents of developmentally disabled kids can't. In one scene, Owen is seated at a table with his parents and several other professionals in a conference room, having a meeting about his transition to his own apartment. I saw that and thought about the countless kids with similar conditions who have no hope of getting that kind of support.

But, we can't fault Owen's parents for doing whatever is in their means for their child. And this is Owen's story, and it's an unforgettable one regardless.

It's heartbreaking to see Owen's parents discuss the pain of Owen's transition as a small child, one so severe that they say it felt like their child had been kidnapped. This was the early nineties, and much less was known about autism at the time. Certainly less was understood in pop culture. They relate the particularly awful period in school when bullies said they were going to burn his house down. Owen took things literally, so imagine how terrified he was, thinking this was actually going to happen. This is a perfect example of how imperative it is to stop bullying in schools. It's not always just a normal part of growing up for any kid, as parents resisting anti-bullying campaigns might say. You never know the true depths of which a kid might be being damaged by it.

But Owen breaks through so much, through the key element that makes this story special: Disney animated feature films. He spoke his first complete sentence, conveying a complex idea, by suddenly relating to the likes of Peter Pan and The Jungle Book. Owen's parents discover that the Disney movies, in all their reliable simplicity, are how Owen makes sense of the real world. And they and his brother get him to talk by having discourse with him using lines from the movies. Owen literally memorized the scripts to every Disney animated feature film ever made.

This isn't the end of Owen's story, mind you, but the beginning of it. He faces many challenges, but it's this breakthrough that allows him to face them at all. Life, Animated takes us from there through a few years of Owen's young adult life. It frequently breaks for its own animated interludes, beautifully rendered water color motifs. We see how he uses the Disney movies to cultivate a social life, set and achieve goals, and just get through his day to day life. As he figures things out, with the help of his support system, your heart alternately breaks and soars for him. He certainly comes into more opportunities than most people would in his position, from meeting key voice actors from his favorite films to flying to France to speak at a conference.

It turns out, though, that Owen isn't that different in his using one particular passion to make sense the real world. He cites a friend who loves superheroes, another who catalogues Jewish actors. It's easy to see this movie providing solace, of sorts, to other families in similar circumstances. Owen's story particularly resonates because so many of us have our own deep-seeded nostalgia regarding the very same movies he loves so much. It's heartening to see a wide array of clips from Disney animated features in this movie, which can only mean the Walt Disney Company gave their blessing. Life, Animated would not have been the same without it -- and neither would Owen Suskind.

Owen Suskind (R) continues the lifelong bond with his father in a unique way that shatters through the prison of autism in LIFE, ANIMATED.

Overall: A-
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