Owen Suskind was diagnosed with autism when he was three years old. Now he is 23, preparing to move into his own apartment. Once, in early childhood, his parents thought he might never speak again. After years of education and struggle, he is now entering the world. His story is as inspirational as it is important, a shining light in the fight to combat stereotypes around this much-fraught developmental disorder.
Unfortunately, Roger Ross Williams’s documentary about Owen and his family underuses the inherent dramatic potential of the story. Life, Animated, while not short on feeling, lacks confidence. The film chronicles both Owen’s current move out into the world and the story of his childhood, narrated by his parents. Ron and Cornelia Suskind tell of his diagnosis, the difficult early years, and their first real breakthrough. As it turns out, that came through a bit of dialog in The Little Mermaid. Owen, who at age three nearly retreated into himself entirely, has learned how to relate to others through the magic of Disney animated movies.
This obviously has some wonderful cinematic potential. The problem is that it’s often squandered by insistence, the telling and retelling of significant facts as if the audience cannot be trusted to make their own realizations. The core moment, when everyone discovers that Disney will be the key to bringing Owen out of himself, is so heavily emphasized by interviews and narration that the impact wanes dramatically. Time and again, things are redundantly stated as well as shown. All of the “wonderment” in the “Wonderful World of Disney,” which Owen himself mentions time and again, is ceded to verbal explanation.
It’s not as if Williams doesn’t try. There are a handful of devices in the film used to capture Owen’s state of mind in cinematic terms. The sound design occasionally warps to imitate the overstimulation of the environment to the autistic mind. A camera is placed in front of Owen’s television to capture his reactions to his beloved movies. Appropriate clips from Disney films occasionally take over the screen. There are also a few sequences of gorgeous original animation, done by French studio Mac Guff, that are more impressionistic than anything Disney itself has done in years.
Yet these stylistic flourishes are few and far between, each of them used only sparingly. They are always announced and explained, as if their power might not be safe to release into the minds of the audience without moderation. And so every idea, every emotional step is introduced via interview footage, or occasionally even through stilted and scripted narration.
It’s tempting to attribute this frustratingly uncinematic character to the heavy involvement of the Suskind parents, one of whom served as executive producer of the film. It reminds me of Jim: The James Foley Story, which foregoes serious consideration of its themes in favor of highlighting the calm warmth of the subject family’s New England kitchens.
Yet it is certainly possible to keep a strong, cinematic documentary close to its subject family without either alienating them or compromising the artistic potential. Thank You for Playing, a highlight of last year’s Tribeca Film Festival, also features some truly moving animation in its portrayal of a video game designer coping with the terminal cancer of his child. It’s possible to lead an audience through intimate, difficult and inspiring stories of childhood without holding the hands of either the audience or the parents’ subjects. Life, Animated is a frustrating example of a film refusing to take the risks that lead to such a triumph.
This review was originally posted during the Tribeca Film Festival on April 15, 2016.