CINEPHILIA: Life, Animated exposes the limitations of a Disney ending

Owen Suskind has an affinity for the Disney films that help him communicate despite his autism.

Life, Animated, based on the book of the same name, is about Owen, a young boy with regressive autism, who learns to communicate through Disney movies. With the precision of a calculator, Owen can recite every line from every animated Disney movie ever made. Far from being merely an obsession, Disney’s filmography is Owen’s vocabulary, how he understands the world, and the framework through which he filters his experience. These films are his language, his scripture, and his metaphysical reality.

When Owen turns three and loses his ability to say coherent words, it isn’t until his father talks in the voice of the character Iago (the parrot from Aladdin) that the boy responds. From here, the treatment builds off Owen’s affinity and understanding of Disney, thereby providing him with a voice.

Despite his unique circumstances, a lot of what Owen goes through is relatable. Although he sees the world from a different viewpoint, he is still a 23-year-old man, in love, looking for work, and about to move out of his parent’s home. Like all of us, he wants to be happy and have a meaningful life, regardless of the hand that life has dealt him.

Since Disney films live inside Owen, the director Roger Ross Williams frames this documentary like one. Not only does it literally turn his life into an animated film with exquisite hand-drawn images, his entire journey is focused towards independence and growing up, much like those of Simba, Peter Pan, and Mowgli.

The film makes a point of showing the limitations of this simple “black and white” worldview, where the heroes succeed and the villains fail. Heartbreak comes when Owen can’t make sense of life within the tight constrictions of Disney conventions, such as when his girlfriend breaks up with him, not because he did anything wrong but because she needed some space — to no fault of either party. In a funny digression, Owen’s brother, coincidentally named Walt, has a tough time talking to him about sex, short of showing him a porn parody of, say, The Little Mermaid. Disney movies have happy endings and sterilized content, but this film is wise enough to show how Owen is unprepared for unfairness because of it.

Unfortunately, a lot of this tale is made slight by its telling. Other than a few inspired edits that express internal emotions through Owen’s favourite films, a lot of the form is simple and conventional. Like most documentaries, we jump between old photos, family interviews, and contemporary fly-on-the-wall footage. Given the potential for a powerful, subjective montage though, it’s disappointing that the film takes the easy way out: to have Owen exposit how he feels instead of finding a less literal way to express it.

Thankfully, Owen is not put under the microscope like a science experiment, and the film’s catchy hook is an entry point for this resilient young man’s story. By not treating its hero like an “Other,” a deficient object for us to pity, Life, Animated shows the universality in his challenges.

Beautifully and subtly, Roger Ross Williams has a made a film about an animated life that isn’t a cartoon.