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Review: Life, Animated

July 22, 2016

By John Corrado

★★★★ (out of 4)

Life, Animated PosterWalt Disney’s motto was that for every laugh there should be a tear, so it’s only fitting that Life, Animated, a documentary about the profound affects the studio’s animated classics have had on a young autistic man, would offer plenty of both emotions.

This is the story of Owen Suskind, whose keys to understanding the world come from Disney animated films.  When he was three, he lost his ability to speak and was diagnosed with a pervasive developmental disorder, but started to open up again and reached a breakthrough when his father Ron spoke to him through his beloved Iago puppet, creating a new channel for his family to communicate with him.

Regaining his speech by quoting dialogue, Owen came to closely identify with the classic Disney sidekicks who help guide the main characters on their journey, and the films helped him foster empathy and become closer to his family.  One of his earliest and most profound moments of insight came as a child, when he related the fear of growing up to Mowgli and Peter Pan.  While in college, he even started a Disney Club for other adults with disabilities to talk about what the films mean to them.

Directed by Roger Ross Williams, who is a longtime friend of the family, Life, Animated follows Owen as he prepares to move into his own assisted living apartment, while dealing with typical aspects of young adult life like having a girlfriend and finding a job.  The close relationship he shares with his older brother, who just so happens to be named Walt, is one of the most touching aspects of the film, and allows for rare insight from the perspective of a sibling to someone with a disability.

Expanding upon Ron Suskind’s bestselling book of the same name, the film mixes old home movies, family interviews, and vérité footage of Owen adjusting to more independence, to show the incredible progress he has made over the years.  The film features an abundance of classic Disney clips that take on even greater meaning with how they relate to the story, including a gutting use of The Hunchback of Notre Dame.  There are also some beautifully done original sequences courtesy of the French animation company Mac Guff, that feature versions of classic Disney characters like Baloo and Sebastian, and bring to life a short story Owen wrote about being “Protector of the Sidekicks.”

As a Disney fan who has also found life lessons in many of their films over the years, and continues to hold them close to my heart, Life, Animated hit me on an incredibly personal level.  Owen himself makes for a very likeable subject who lights up the screen, and there are just so many wonderful and uplifting moments throughout, that it will steal your heart in the same way as the many classic animated films that become such a big part of the story.

Beautifully crafted and always entertaining, Life, Animated is a real tearjerker that is also profoundly inspiring, providing a moving story about learning to grow up without losing the sense of magic that Disney represents, and a touching reminder of the life changing power that movies can hold.  And it’s a must see for any and all Disney fans.

Life, Animated opens today in limited release at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema in Toronto.  Tickets and showtimes can be found right here.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Whitney Worthen permalink
    August 4, 2016 8:35 pm

    This sounds like a beautiful films! Hopefully I can find it one day!


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