“Disney” is a loaded word. For one person, “Disney” calls to mind a vast library populated with classics of animation, from “Bambi” to “Fantasia,” and all the childhood memories married to each in their mind. For another person, mere mention of “Disney” is an invitation to burst into a foaming tirade about the company’s iron grip on the world of entertainment. If you’re the first kind of person, Roger Ross Williams’ new documentary, “Life, Animated,” should pique your interest. If you’re the second, stay away unless you’re addicted to coronaries; the film is deep in the House of Mouse’s pocket on a paper-thin surface level, appearing, at a glance, to exist only as an argument for the fundamental goodness of the Disney apparatus.
But Williams isn’t saying that, and neither is “Life, Animated.” The film isn’t about Disney, per se, or Disney’s impact on popular culture and its consumers. Instead, it’s about Disney’s impact on an individual, Owen Suskind, a twenty-three-year-old autistic man who learned to self-express by watching, digesting, and absorbing animated Disney pictures. “Life, Animated” is a testament to Owen, and how he connects with, interprets, and occasionally shields himself from, the world around him through the lens of cinema. It isn’t a Disney movie. It’s a movie that happens to feature clips of Disney movies, fixed in the sole context of Owen’s life and times.
We first meet Owen in 2014, as he prepares to graduate and move on to the next phase of his adulthood, but we spend a chunk of the film being familiarized with Owen as a boy. Williams accomplishes this through use home video footage procured from his parents, Ron and Cornelia, and by conducting talking head interviews with both of them; it’s through them that we’re told of Owen’s struggles with his condition, which cut off his speech capabilities and left him a shell of a child. Ron relates their experiences with Owen’s autism to kidnapping, describing his son’s withdrawal into himself as a sort of vanishing; watching him and Cornelia revisit their feelings of helplessness over their son’s decline stings, though as consolation, they’re clearly accustomed to doing so. (Ron, a journalist and author, wrote the book Williams has used as the blueprint for his movie.)
The picture of Owen we meet in the film’s present doesn’t jibe with the boy the Suskinds talk about in the past tense. Owen speaks and engages in his fashion; we see footage of him leading discussions on Disney films with his fellow students, and the statements he and his peers make about each tend toward the profound. That’s to be expected, though. Disney films are the tool by which Owen was able to reconnect and communicate with Ron and Cornelia at the age of 3. As Owen disappeared within himself, he developed an innate and bonded understanding with movies ranging from “The Lion King,” to “The Jungle Book,” to “Hercules,” to “The Little Mermaid,” and countless others. You imagine that he very likely has the entire Disney vault committed to memory, and can recite lines of dialogue from all of them as easily as breathing.
And that’s what Williams means to highlight: Owen’s story of how these movies were able to serve as a conduit to bring him closer together with his mother, father, and brother. In an alternate timeline, or in another person’s story, “Disney” could be replaced by “DreamWorks,” or “Pixar,” or “Studio Ghibli.” The intention isn’t to celebrate Disney as a brand, or as a market entity, but to acknowledge the objectively massive role the studio’s output has played in Owen’s life. Put in those terms, the film is a success, particularly when Williams fixes his camera on Owen and lets him speak directly to us, or, in some cases, lets us observe Owen as he watches and reacts to sequences from a few choice Disney flicks; the camera cross cuts from the scene in question to Owen’s response.
You feel like you’re learning as much about him in these moments as in any that feature spoken dialogue. (In particular, the “Festival of Fools” bit from ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame” says volumes.) But “Life, Animated” serves Owen best through its own animated interludes, which are derived from ‘The Land of the Lost Sidekicks,’ a yarn penned by Owen himself about a boy — a boy who is “just like other boys,” and who is “small, just 3 years old, and scared” — who flees a coming storm and ends up in the company of Baloo, Sebastian, Rafiki, Iago, and other members of Disney’s stable of beloved secondary characters. These are paramount episodes where “Life, Animated” transitions from being a movie about Owen to being Owen’s movie, where Owen is given the reins and allowed to govern his narrative.
All of “Life, Animated” is Owen’s narrative, of course, but it’s the in-house animated segments that come explicitly from Owen. They are about him just like the rest of the film is about him, but the difference is that the rest of the film is William’s, where “The Land of the Lost Sidekicks” is Owen’s. Maybe a ballsier, more ambitious version of “Life, Animated” would have spent all of its time turning Owen’s fantasy tale-cum-autobiography into cinema, an entry to sit on shelves beside the Disney films that have had such enormous influence on him from his youth to his adulthood. That would have been something, but the version of “Life, Animated” that we have is something, too: A tender, rich, wonderfully told chronicle of its subject and a celebration of his spirit. We should all be so lucky to feel passion for anything the way he does “Peter Pan.” [B]