FILM REVIEW: Natalie Stendall on an uplifting documentary that is never sentimental

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Oscar-nominated documentary Life, Animated traces the childhood of Owen, a young man with autism who learned to connect with the world through Disney’s animated films, writes Natalie Stendall.

Losing his use of language at age three, Owen retreated to an inner world. While his parents worried that he might never be able to talk again, Owen was memorising the dialogue of every Disney film by heart.

We meet Owen as he faces the life-changing shift to adult living, graduating from school and moving from his parent’s home to his own apartment in an assisted living community. He navigates his fears and excitement by watching scenes from The Lion King, Peter Pan and Bambi which director Roger Ross Williams intercuts.

The exaggerated emotions of the Disney characters and their coming of age stories resonate with Owen but there are limitations on the life experiences Disney encapsulates. Owen’s teachers coach him in social interaction, while his brother tentatively broaches adult relationships.

Williams employs a mix of talking heads, fly-on-the-wall footage and original animated sequences to give a complete picture of Owen’s experience. The documentary is based on the book by Owen’s father, Ron Suskind, but the visual medium enables Williams to fuse Owen’s experience with the very films that inspire him.

The frequent cuts to Disney movies provide an elegant shortcut to the audience’s own emotional seam. More importantly, Williams is able to capture Owen’s views about life in an animated short film penned by Owen himself.

Titled Land Of The Lost Sidekicks, this beautifully drawn 2D animation is the closest we get to experiencing the world as Owen does. For both Owen and Williams, animation becomes a language of its own and Life, Animated subtly explores the medium itself.

If there’s an issue with Williams’ film, it’s in the details. Owen’s parents describe his breakthrough with language but we hardly get beyond the vague idea that Owen’s early life was built around communication in ‘Disney dialogue’. There’s little in the way of home video footage or input from medical professionals.

The latter is likely a deliberate choice. Life, Animated is very much a family affair and its compact, domestic mood contributes to its intimacy.

Williams’s Life, Animated is about much more than the positive, life-affirming potential of animated stories. Instead, its audience also discover a film about personal strength, identity, family and love. As his parents age, Owen’s brother Walt faces the daunting prospect of being his sole guardian, while his parents are themselves unsettled by the uncertainty of the future. Disney’s happy endings contrast with the heartache and unfairness of life but the Suskind family remain positive and inspiring.

In Life, Animated Williams delivers an uplifting documentary that’s never sentimental, while embracing and exploring the unique power of animation to communicate feeling.

4/5

Life, Animated is currently streaming on BBC iPlayer