A documentary focusing on how parents learned to communicate with their son with Disney animations after he stopped speaking due to regressive autism, Lawrence checked out Life, Animated.
Life, Animated is equal parts documentary and adaptation, with considerable script taken from the book of the same name. Both follow the Suskind family: parents Ron and Cornelia, and two sons Owen and Walt. The crux of the film lies with Owen. At age 3, he lost his ability to speak, and was subsequently diagnosed with Regressive Autism. Except this is the mid-90s, and knowledge of the autistic spectrum is still very formative; Ron and Cornelia find themselves completely out of their depth.
Owen is fixated with Disney films, watching them over and over, sometimes just individual scenes. At one point he’s mumbling what has become his usual gibberish (“Juisyurvose, jusyorvos”) while watching Ursula’s Poor Unfortunate Souls routine.
Go ahead!/Make your choice!/I’m a very busy woman and I haven’t got all day/It won’t cost much/Just your voice!
“Juisyurvose, jusyorvos” rewinding it over and over. His parents look to each other. “Owen, ‘Juisyurvose’, ‘Just your voice’?” His eyes light up; it’s a breakthrough. Later attempts at communicating through Disney dialogue are fruitful; he’s memorized entire films, and is using the dialogue to express complex sentences his family had thought were now beyond him. He’s even using characters’ relationships as a means of understanding interpersonal dynamics, the exaggerated facial expressions easily conveying emotion he would otherwise struggle to pick up on. Suddenly Ron can have entire conversations with his son again, albeit only through an Iago hand-puppet with his best Gilbert Gottfried impersonation, but baby steps.
There are two narrative threads presented, if such a phrase is even applicable: In the present day we have a fly-on-the-wall view into Owen’s gradual transition from living with his parents to living independent, and the challenges that presents. Interwoven with this is the story of him and his family’s struggles during his childhood (this aspect is where the book ties in), presented as a series of interviews and footage, accompanied by relevant Disney clips and original animation.
Said original animation is marvellous, you’ll be pleased to hear. Initial scenes provide stark, monochromatic imagery to aid in demonstrating Owen and his family’s troubles. In a later sequence, Owen describes a story he wrote to cope with some self-esteem issues, and the animation takes over to provide a resplendent moving illustration, filled with colour.
Documentaries of this kind often straddle a line by striving for “genuinely uplifting” and hitting “eye-rollingly maudlin” instead. Fortunately, Life, Animated keeps itself in check, albeit with a few close calls (“He would watch Hercules to be courageous, he would watch The Jungle Book when he needed friends, and he would watch Pinocchio when he wanted to feel like a real boy,” ye gods). Mercifully, that’s the worst of it.
With some research, I learned that Disney published the book the documentary is based from, unsurprisingly. Astonishingly however, despite the copious use of excerpts from Disney films, songs, and characters, Disney has had no direct involvement in this film whatsoever. Those aware of Disney’s infamous zeal over protection of their IP may find this equally surprising. One would think, considering the feel-good nature of the movie, that their claws would be sunken deep, but evidently not. To see these iconic characters appropriated in such a way was… pleasantly jarring? If there is such a thing.
While as a case study it may be of great use to those in relevant fields, it is the impeccable presentation and optimistic nature of this film that prompt me to recommend it to anyone with even a passing interest in the subject matter, though more jaded viewers may have some trouble digesting the saccharine nature of the film. The Autistic Spectrum is diverse, and this may only represent a small subset, but I foresee those with family in similar circumstances finding it especially engrossing. High marks all around.
P.S.: Yes, his brother’s name is actually Walt. It is a complete coincidence. Yes, I know.
Big Picture Reviews do not score documentaries. Read about it here.