This is the story of Owen Suskind and how he learned to connect with the world again. Up until the age of three he had been a normal, happy little boy, born to his parents Ron, a journalist, and Cornelia, and with an older brother, Walter, it was just your average family until one day Owen began behaving strangely. His previous ability to speak was replaced with gibberish and then silence and his motor skills began to desert him; he was taken to a specialist who broke the news to his worried parents that the child had autism, and they were mortified, all their dreams for their son now were ruined in their eyes, especially as he now found it impossible to communicate with them in any meaningful way. But he did like Disney cartoons...
Before Life, Animated, probably the highest profile and most respected documentary feature concerned with learning difficulties was Ira Wohl's Best Boy, which detailed his cousin's struggles to become independent despite a severe disability, a state of affairs that was growing more pressing as his elderly parents were finding it increasingly difficult to look after him. Many of the same worries were troubling the minds of the Suskinds, though Owen had his brother to help everyone recognised there was only so much they could do, and as we caught up with him at age twenty-three the matter was of utmost importance. But this was not all about those issues, as there was the case of what happened to draw him out of his shell.
Which, as the title indicated, were cartoons, especially Disney cartoons which though they approached different themes went about them in a similar way, as there were identifiable elements in each that made them recognisably of that studio's output. In an incredible display of the benefits of cinema, Owen began to communicate with people once Ron realised that he was understanding the cartoons in a way he had no conception of previously; the boy was perceiving life lessons through the animation that were unexpectedly sophisticated for an individual who was supposedly not getting anywhere with relating to the outside world. The breakthrough was when Ron talked with his son through his Disney character soft toy, and Owen replied.
Finally knowing how his son felt about his existence was stunning, and not only to Ron, but to the whole family and the boy's therapists as well. It should be noted that the Walt Disney had nothing to do with the making of his documentary aside from allowing director Roger Ross Williams to use the relevant clips from their output, but also to see parts of Owen's own story animated in some lovely rendering. These sequences showed his actual path into compassion and understanding: through the sidekicks, of which he identified himself as the protector as if he noted they looked after and encouraged the hero or heroine, but also felt they should have someone to do the same for them. We see a representation of Owen as a little boy, battling a villain of his own devising, which could stand for a number of aspects of his life.
Be that the bullies he suffered at school (he had no idea they were not serious when they said they would murder his parents), or the looming future which it was uncertain he would be able to cope with on his own, or the simple heartbreak everyone has to endure at some stage, but makes no sense to you if you are an autistic who loves the happily ever after conclusions of the Disney movies. While this illustrated the downside of gleaning your emotional education from watching lots of films, it also demonstrated the benefits, not simply because you can find a character to relate to, but also because you can find a way into the personalities of others that will help you appreciate what makes them tick, all the better to work out how to get along in life. Williams and his subjects were not saying cartoons, any films really, were exclusively able to perform miracles in improving your mental health, but they could be a great assistance, and even when Owen is at his lowest ebb we see he has learned enough from his passion to handle the troubles better. Inescapably moving at times, Life, Animated had the potential to be just as beneficial as those entertainments.