DOCUMENTARY REVIEW: Life, Animated

(Image: theculturetrip.com)

2016 Chicago Critics Film Festival selection

"LIFE, ANIMATED"-- 5 STARS

This website has been moralizing for six years now its central message that "every movie has a lesson."  As an educator, it is something that I firmly believe and stand by with every possible film, good or bad.  I don't think, in all of my years of movie-going, I have ever seen a more real, living and breathing example of the power and magic of my website's theme than in the compelling and emotional new documentary "Life, Animated."  Winner of the documentary directing award at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, a story like this is why I write.  If that message speaks to you, go find "Life, Animated" immediately.

In his 20's, Owen Suskind is a young man with autism.  He has received many years of special schooling to develop functionality and independence and is one month away from graduating and getting his own apartment.  The secret to his success and his personal fuel of passion are the stories, entertainment, themes, and lessons that come from an imaginative, yet atypical place: Walt Disney's animated feature films. 

Go ahead and write down or remember in your mind the first word that comes to mind when you read that last sentence.  Think about all of the fantasy, fairy tales, good, and evil found in those films.  Did you write "wrong," "weird," "odd," or "nuts," or did you write "cool," "inspiring," or "whoa?"  No matter what, you have to hear this young man's story and be amazed.

"Life, Animated" is based on the book "Life, Animated: A Story of Sidekicks, Heroes, and Autism" written by Owen's Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist father Ron Suskind.  At the early age of 3, Ron, his wife Cornelia, and his older brother Walt begin to see changes in their happy and fun-loving youngest son.  His motor skills decline and his speech is reduced to gibberish.  Disheartened, they learn from specialists that Owen has a form of autism.  As he grows, they long for a way to connect and communicate with him when an epiphany arrives.  Owen is at his calmest and most focused watching animated Disney films with his brother.  He understands and speaks using dialogue from the films and Owen's family learns to do the same.

In the present day, those entry points of entertainment have become a lens to view the world and a healthy form of therapy for Owen.  Through the wide ranges of characters and emotions in Disney's varied catalog, those movies are Owen's basis to cope and make sense of the world, one that has made him an extremely sweet-natured man.  His capacity, education, and functionality grow to the point where Owen creates his own stories, teaches a Disney Movie Club to other special needs patients, has the love a girlfriend named Emily, and has a sweet gig working at a movie theater.  The tricky part becomes how does a perpetual kid-at-heart with Owen's limitations ever completely grow up into an adult world where fairy tales do not always apply.

The personal and heartfelt execution of "Life, Animated" has a boundless optimism and beauty.  Academy Award-winning Documentary Short Subject director Roger Ross Williams and his editor David Teague merge an affecting blend of visuals.  Home videos of Owen's life and progression are accompanied by lovely original animation by visual effects artist Mac Gruff.  As a cherry on top, thanks to cooperation from Walt Disney Pictures, Owen's thoughts and triggers are also narrated by or meshed with the archival clips, imagery, and footage of those specific animated classics.  As a visual documentary, this is pure perfection. 

This fluid blend of colliding creativity makes for a gorgeous viewing experience.  "Life, Animate" will evoke your own memories of Disney's themes and films played right there next to Owen's.  The effect of those relived moments cannot help but powerfully stir your own emotions.  Bring your tissues and be an inspired kid again.  As simply as this sounds, you will never look at autism or a Disney movie the same ways again.  Love both those special films and special individuals for what they bring to this world.

LESSON #1: THE DIFFERENT DEGREES OF AUTISM AND FUNCTIONALITY-- To too many moviegoers, autism is still "Rain Man."  Owen Suskind isn't Dustin Hoffman's Ray.  He could be a friend or a neighbor and his uniqueness, at its core, is no different than ours.  He shows the potential of what people with autism can accomplish.  They, and you, just need a way to reach them.  

LESSON #2: WE ALL LEARN THE WORLD THROUGH A DIFFERENT LENS-- Call the "lens" whatever you like: your influences, your inspirations, your idols, your upbringing, your environment, your cognitive development, etc.  Every one makes sense of the world we live in a different way and with different rationalizations.  This is Owen's and it just happens to be Disney movies.      

LESSON #3: EVERY MOVIE HAS A LESSON-- I said it the opening paragraph, I say it in every review, and I mean it.  Call them fiction and disposable entertainment all you want, but movies can inspire and create emotions and memories.  Movies can teach and help people relate to anything.  Look no further than Owen Suskind for proof over fanciful theory.  When it works, it works.  When it's right, it's so very right.

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