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Wednesday, March 01, 2017

Life, Animated

Another of the nominated films for Best Documentary Feature was Life, Animated, a rarity--an upbeat documentary. It tells the story of Owen Suskind, who at age three stopped talking. The diagnosis was autism, but eventually his parents discovered that Disney animated films helped him connect with the world.

Directed by Roger Ross Williams, who was given complete access by the Suskind family as they followed Owen as he neared graduation and faced moving into his own place (with assisted living). Some of the backstory was animated itself, depicting Owen's inner world.

There are some interesting aspects of his autism--he identifies with the sidekicks of the films (generally, these are Disney films' greatest strengths; the heroes are generally bland, but think of Nathan Lane's Timon or Robin Williams' genie and that's the genius of the works). He wrote a story called "The Land of the Sidekicks" that is quite touching, and might make a decent movie.

The film might have been better as a short, as it stretches to cover 91 minutes. Owen is a charming fellow, but we don't really need to see him go through every part of his day. There is also something of an omission--we hear how he first started speaking by interacting with Disney characters (his father's first conversation with him is with a Iago puppet) but when me meet Owen as a 23-year-old he's pretty articulate. When did he go from barely saying a few words to running a Disney club at his school?

I also have some nitpicking questions, that might be answered by the OCD of some autistic persons. Why in the world does he still have videocassettes, when you can't even buy a VCR? Did he resist going to DVD? And is this only Disney films--no DreamWorks, Warner Brothers, and what about Pixar, which is now part of Disney?

Animated films do have a special hold on some children. I grew up in a pre-video era, but I liked going to Disney films (the first one I remember seeing is The Jungle Book, but I probably saw Pinocchio and Bambi and maybe some other older ones in theaters), but my twin nephews, when they were about four, watched The Lion King every day.

What's heartening is that Owen does not hide inside the Disney films--he lives in the real world, but uses the films as a bridge to that real world to help his understand it.

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