Disney vs autism in doc ‘Life, Animated’
For his depiction of young disabled Africans who find strength through playing music in 2010’s “Music by Prudence,” Roger Ross Williams was awarded the Oscar for Best Documentary Short.
By humanizing autism to a degree previously unseen in mainstream cinema — with a major assist from the Walt Disney Company — it’s conceivable that he’ll be back on the Dolby Theatre stage in late February collecting another statuette for “Life, Animated.”
Williams’ tender feature-length doc centers on the Suskind family of Cambridge, Mass., whose nearly ideal existence is thrown into disarray when younger son Owen is diagnosed with the brain development disorder.
Doing an exemplary job of recounting their heartbreak at not being able to communicate with Owen for multiple years, his parents Ron and Cornelia and brother Walter similarly excel at relaying the overwhelming joy of finding a way in to Owen’s mind through Disney’s animated kids films.
Having memorized the dialogue from “Dumbo,” “Aladdin” and “The Lion King,” among many other movies, Owen finds analogs in the real world (e.g. noticing Walter’s “Peter Pan”-like sadness at growing up, something no one else sees) and, with help from specialists, opens a door to fairly normal communication about nearly anything and a reasonably normal life.
In recounting this development, Ron especially conveys the family’s emotions as if the breakthrough happened the day the interview was shot, doubly impressive since he previously compartmentalized these thoughts and feelings in writing the book that inspired Williams’ film.
The background provided, “Life, Animated” moves forward with Owen as he nears graduation and prepares to move into his own apartment in an assisted living community 75 miles away from his parents — never shying away from the quirks of Owen’s autism.
A body mic captures the running high-pitched gibberish monologue he conducts with himself while taking solo walks and plenty of anxious moments arise as he figures out how to navigate various issues — a scene of he and his girlfriend Emily baking cookies is particularly tense — including a few meltdowns when things don’t go his way.
Augmented by home movies and copious clips from Owen’s cherished Disney films — without which the film wouldn’t be nearly as powerful — it all forms a well-rounded, respectful portrait of this extraordinary young man.
Furthermore, despite its fairly standard nonfiction approach, the film reaches its own Owen-like breakthrough via original animation from French visual effects company Mac Guff, which transforms Owen’s original stories of a young boy protecting Disney sidekicks into living paintings and provides our hero his own well-deserved cartoon adventure.
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