When I saw Life, Animated at the Full Frame Documentary Festival in April, I laughed, cried and felt sure that this would be a documentary that we’d be talking about during Oscar season at the end of this year. After a decade of witnessing an annual crop of autism-focused documentaries, I think the genre finally has its Avatar (or Titanic, depending on which you like more). Director Roger Ross Williams has achieved the ultimate in documentary filmmaking with Life, Animated: the film adapted from Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ron Suskind’s memoir about his autistic son Owen’s incredible progression from being virtually inert to becoming a socially-engaged person through his identification with Disney movie characters. It’s an emotional, socially significant piece of top-notch storytelling that is entertaining and inspiring.
Before the film’s release, I wrote about its use of animation for The New York Times, focusing on the fact that Disney, usually a very guarded company, embraced the film and its recreation of some of its animated characters. Seeing so much Disney in a documentary is unusual, although third-party depictions of Disney characters aren’t unprecedented. In Dreamworks’ Shrek series, Snow White and other folk tale characters now largely associated with Disney appear. As does the Evil Queen in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall. I was curious whether Disney had internalized some lessons from its 2014 hit, Frozen, when it let a groundswell of fan-generated YouTube Frozen tributes go.
Now that the film, which is being distributed by Orchard Pictures, is in theaters and expanding to cities across the country, I thought I’d take another look at the movie and the remarkable Suskind family.
I interviewed Ron and Owen and wasn’t surprised that the elder Suskind was eloquent and illuminating in our discussion. Speaking of how Owen could adopt Disney dialogue, he said, “Kids do this with all kinds of content that they find in the world. They turn it into a lifeboat or a code breaker, especially when you have this particular differently abled neurodiversity.” He cautioned that parents can’t just plop their kids in front of a Disney movie and expect the same results. Every kid is different. And the parents have to be deeply involved.
Ron marveled at how in his career as a journalist, he had dedicated so much writing to “left behind” people in places like Pakistan, when “the most profoundly left behind person was in my home,” he said.
Ron prepped me for my conversation with Owen by telling me that his son didn’t converse like most of us do, with an implicit understanding that we’re talking as an exchange as if with goods, with mutual benefits—I’m getting information for my story and he’s giving me information that he wants me to relay—but, instead, he is more directly in the moment, sharing his thoughts without calculation.
Indeed, talking with Owen was a fun dive into the world of an animation fanboy. He did a rendition of Disney dialogue in the voice of Lucky Jack (one of the recreated animated characters in Life, Animated) and gave me a two-minute recitation of all of the non-Disney movies that he is also a fan of—at my prodding.
I also asked him what he thought of the then-upcoming Finding Dory.
“I’m thinking about it,” he said, diplomatically. “I’ll wait to see how good it is. I am not sure she can support a whole movie on her own.”
As for Life, Animated, he felt, “Amazed and proud inside,” he said. “And people can now see me for who I am.”
To find screenings of Life, Animated in your area, visit the official website.