Last October, I got together with a couple of friends to watch the documentary Life, Animated (2017 Academy Award nominee for “Best Documentary”; winner of Critics Choice Documentary Award “Most Compelling Living Subject of a Documentary”; National Board of Review “Top Five Documentaries”; San Francisco International Film Festival “Best Director”; Sundance Film Festival “Best Director”). We gathered for the viewing because each of us works in some capacity with individuals who have disabilities, so a film about a boy with autism and how he views the world is right up our alley. I think all three of us believed, going in, that we would enjoy the film particularly within the realm of our professional roles, we would see similarities with our own students, and maybe we either would have our own views confirmed or would learn some new facts or research about autism. Within minutes of viewing though, and throughout the film, our posture changed. We leaned toward the screen. We talked to and with the film’s subjects and wondered what they were doing or feeling after particular scenes cut. (I shy away from saying, “We laughed, we cried…” but, as a matter of fact, we did.) The film’s director, Roger Ross Williams, said its goal is “to change the way you think”—and it seemed to be doing just that.
Life, Animated is inspired by the book Life, Animated: A Story of Sidekicks, Heroes, and Autism by Pulitzer Prize–winning author Ron Suskind (A Hope in the Unseen, The One Percent Doctrine, et al). Both book and film chronicle the life of Suskind’s son Owen, who was diagnosed with autism at age three in the early 1990s. Instead of progressing as he had been with speech and motor skills, he rapidly regresses, leaving his parents to describe it as “someone kidnapped our son.” Doctors do not provide a particularly hopeful diagnosis, and the Suskinds are left with a basic, bleak understanding of autism gleaned from Rain Man.Life, Animated allows us to see how a family loves each other, though they were required to take a journey they hadn’t been expecting.
For several years, Owen doesn’t make eye contact and speaks nothing other than gibberish. The only thing that appears to soothe and calm him is repeatedly viewing Disney animated movies. The family—father Ron, mother Cornelia, and older brother Walt—watch the movies with him since it is their only way to connect. For months, Owen repeats the phrase, “juicervose,” which the family tries to decode in vain, only to eventually discover it is what the sea witch, Ursula, says to Ariel in The Little Mermaid: “It won’t cost much…just your voice!” Ron, recounting the moment 20-some years later to the camera, is as excited at the breakthrough as if it had happened that morning.
Several years after deciphering the meaning of juicervose, two more breakthroughs happen. Then six-year-old Owen sees nine-year-old Walt is somewhat emotional after his birthday party. Owen walks up to Ron and Cornelia and states matter-of-factly, “Walter doesn’t want to grow up, like Mowgli or Peter Pan” then runs off to his room. Seeing that the two moments of clarity with their son in the past several years have had to do with Disney, Ron goes to Owen’s bedroom where he is sitting alone, flipping through a Disney picture book. He spies a puppet of Iago, the evil sidekick in Aladdin, and proceeds to converse with Owen through the voice of Iago, saying, “Owen, how does it feel to be you?” His reply? “Not good. I’m lonely, and I don’t have any friends.”
What these two moments teach the Suskinds are manifold. First, Owen has memorized every word of every Disney animated film and can speak—if you give him a line, he’ll give you one back. He also has taught himself to read via the film credits. Second—and more important—Owen is using the narratives and emotions within the movies to make sense of his own emotions and the world around him: Hercules for not giving up, Jungle Book for wanting friends, Pinocchio for what it feels like to be a real boy. It was at that moment, Ron describes, “that, as a family, we began to speak in Disney dialogue.”
The documentary provides this scaffold for the story, but the focus of the movie is on grown-up Owen, now 23 years old, as he graduates from a college-experience program and moves into his own condo, part of an assisted-living community for adults with disabilities. We see Owen, Ron, and Cornelia as they meet with a team of psychologists, social workers, social living skills instructors, and more to prepare for his independence. Owen is excited about the move, as two of his college program friends are moving into adjoining condos, and his girlfriend, Emily, is moving upstairs so that they will be “neighbors in love!”
This is where the film could begin to feel scripted or manipulative, a sort of Real World (with Autism), but it never does. We see the family packing up, driving, moving Owen, and the internal processing as well as Disney movie watching he needs to do in order to acclimate himself to this new situation.
In addition, we see the intense preparation it takes to help Owen relate to others, whether it is conversing with Emily, figuring out how to work his mailbox, or interviewing for a job. In one scene, the social thinking evaluator explains that Owen wants so much to have relationships with people, but his brain is not hardwired to allow him to do so. Scripting things helps him. He’s used to Disney scripts through which to filter everything, but life is not a Disney script. She asks a visibly emotional Cornelia what she feels is Owen’s contribution to society, and Cornelia answers, “Who decides what a meaningful life is?”
A key idea that Owen develops for himself, along with a penchant for his own hand-drawn animation, is born from that early-on moment with the puppet Iago. Rather than ever viewing himself as a hero, he draws on the vast selection of Disney sidekicks—those funny, sassy, wise, loveable characters—who, he states, “help the hero fulfill his destiny.” He creates his own story called “Land of the Lost Sidekicks,” a tale of 12 sidekicks searching for a hero, and “in their journey and obstacles they face, they each find the hero within themselves.” With his move toward independence, he has created his own narrative structure.
Because this is such an essential part of who Owen is, the film calls on the animation of Mac Guff, a French visual effects company, to intersperse real-life footage with softly drawn pictures that appear to be sketched in real-time, telling of the reality in which he lives, that land of lost sidekicks, all looking for their inner hero.
The utter charm of Owen is that he doesn’t play to the camera; that is not even within his frame of reference. He works only in raw truth; we see his unfiltered reactions as a variety of his life events occur. Roger Ross Williams employs Interrotron, pioneered by documentarian Errol Morris, to get candid dialogue. The basic concept is a simple two-way mirror with a video monitor mounted under the camera lens, yet giving filmmaker and subject eye contact with each other. This is the perfect method for someone whose main mode of communication has been with characters on a screen for his entire life. The results are delightful—whether Owen is describing why he started a Disney Club, why he loves Peter Pan, or just what is so great about being independent anyway.
Genuine moments are certainly not limited to Owen speaking to a screen. The love between son and parents, two brothers, boyfriend and girlfriend emanate throughout. There is one moment when Owen calls Cornelia to talk about a particular heartbreaking event and asks her the question we all wish we’re brave enough to ask: “Mom, why is the world filled with so much unfair pain and tragedy?” At another moment, Ron, Cornelia, and Owen are walking down a cobbled street in France where they are scheduled to attend a conference, and they spontaneously sing “Be Our Guest” together from Beauty & the Beast. It feels completely real because they’ve been doing Disney dialogue together for decades.
There were many directions in which Life, Animated could have gone. It could have been an impassioned plea about resources for those with disabilities. It could have been a discourse on scientific progress and research on autism. It could have been a heavy-handed effort to sentimentalize the extraordinary barriers a man with autism has had to overcome. Instead it eschews all those and allows us to see how a family loves each other, though they were required to take a journey they hadn’t been expecting.
Changing the way someone thinks through film can be a prodigious undertaking. Certainly, my friends and I, viewing the film, already considered ourselves advocates for those in the disabled community. But I found myself, weeks later, at my son’s pre-school Christmas program in which was another little boy who would not be considered “neurotypical.” Instead of my usual professional tolerance, I found my heart extending toward this “Owen,” a four-year-old, curly-headed boy right in front of me, struggling to hear and understand in a world where everything is garbled. And I wondered about his parents, who must be much like Ron and Cornelia Suskind (my now-dear friends, at least in my mind), as they were likely sitting in the audience, watching their son and hoping desperately that the other students will be his friend, will allow him in the mix with them.
Maybe too often while watching award shows, we take a snack break or flip the channel during the presentation for Best Documentary; after watching Life, Animated, I think we’re making a grave mistake. Documentaries, by telling us stories that are true, actually can have the power to change the way we think. In regular films, the actors can wipe off the makeup and go back to their separate lives, having delivered the message from a script. Here, in a documentary, we are invited guests into real lives. One of the ways this film moved me intensely was seeing the genuine joy on the faces of Ron, Cornelia, and Walt whenever they see Owen, as well as seeing Owen’s face absolutely radiate when looking at them. Disney movies are all about love conquering all, in maybe a not-so-realistic way, but it actually has happened here, leading the Suskinds to say, “Having Owen in our lives isn’t a blessing in disguise. It’s a blessing. He’s our best teacher.”
Throughout the film, the question “who decides what a meaningful life is?” hangs in the air, and viewers are led to ask it of themselves. Does it consist of the traditional paradigms we have—financial gain, public recognition, and above all, a universally accepted idea of “normal” that allows us to smoothly transition from success to success? Life, Animated allows the viewer into that world we see in 1 Corinthians 1:27, that place where God chooses what the world thinks is foolish to shame the wise and what the world thinks is weak to shame the strong. Really, how God determines what the meaningful life is—and it may not be what we think. There is room at the table to celebrate those usually left on the discard pile. In understanding this, maybe we, too, can become sidekicks—realizing that only when we help others to fulfill their destiny do we discover our own inner hero.
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