Nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the 89th Annual Academy Awards
Like quite a few Oscar-nominated releases I’ve experienced of late, this documentary is a wonderful and interesting story, that nevertheless suffers from a few issues in its execution. However, “Life, Animated” does have a ringer, in the fascinating centerpiece personage of Owen Suskind. The now twentysomething Owen, was diagnosed with autism at the age of three, and withdrew into a mostly silent world, that cut off almost all communication with his distraught parents, and older brother. But then–a breakthrough happens. Owen’s father, Ron (a journalist, who wrote this, as well as the book that it’s based on), discovers that his son is finding ways to communicate through dialogue he’s heard in the Disney cartoon features that are always playing in the house. As he gets older, this connection to the animated movies is strongly promoted, and Owen is able to converse increasingly dexterously through the Disney screenplays that he’s committed to memory verbatim. It opens Owen up to the point where he is on the verge of living “on his own” in a supervised community. But some pitfalls do occur.
Roger Ross Williams has already won a documentary short subject Academy Award for 2010’s “Music by Prudence”, and he directs “Life, Animated” with a sure hand. However, there are some dramatic lulls present, especially regarding the employing of inserted animated samplings, that are meant to represent Owen’s thought process. I found them to be flamboyant flourishes that don’t quite work, but they certainly pad that running time to feature-length. Was that the intention? Plus, as if Disney needed another boon to its profit margin, multiple classic, animated features are frequently sampled. Owen’s journey becomes well-known enough over time, that we are treated to Jonathan Freeman and Gilbert Gottfried, from the “Aladdin” vocal cast, making an appearance at Mr. Suskind’s Disney viewing club gatherings, for people with autism. At one point Owen is called upon to make a speech in Paris, and the scenario is handled beautifully. It smartly avoids an over-reliance on sentimentality. So, despite the occasional misstep, “Life, Animated” is a worthwhile odyssey through the mind of a young, inspirational man.