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“Life as we know it” – a strange thing to say,
As if we all share every daily cliché,
As if you and I, in our habits and cares,
The views she retains and the burdens he bears,
All somehow add up to the same.

Life outside yours cannot fully be known;
Though we walk together, our paths are our own.
When other lives deviate, some may presume
Their paths are less worthy where tragedies loom,
And some may regard it a shame.

Life can have weakness without being weak.
Life can have sorrow without being bleak.
Support can be found where we least would suspect,
In plans that are clear only in retrospect,
In paths that are never the same.

Life in its innocence, life in its trials,
Life in its mirth and its merciless miles
Is something we each have the privilege to face,
Each life its own story and none a disgrace,
“Life as I know it,” by name.
_______________________

MPAA rating: PG

One genre that I’ve barely scratched the surface of is documentaries. I’ve always thought of them as interesting and informative, but lacking in entertainment value. Seriously, would you rather watch a Disney movie or a documentary? (I know; depends on which one, right?) Not to mention, I’m always suspect of many “true” stories if there seems to be an agenda behind them. The few documentaries I’ve seen have been quite good (In the Shadow of the Moon, The Drop Box), but they haven’t whet my appetite to seek out others of their kind. Life, Animated has.

I actually had a unique opportunity with this film. It was being shown at a local theater that usually shows second-run movies for $2, but they were showing Life, Animated for free, presented by a local autism organization complete with a Q & A with Ron Suskind, the father of the film’s subject. That subject is Owen Suskind, who seemed like a normal child until he stopped talking at the age of three and was diagnosed with regressive autism. After years of silence, he found his voice again through the inspiration of Disney’s animated films. Donning a hand puppet of Iago from Aladdin, his father discovered that Owen would converse with him through the puppet. Over time, they were able to share conversations with dialogue memorized from Disney films, and Owen even learned to read using the names in the credits.

Life, Animated features a pleasantly non-linear style, jumping between 23-year-old Owen in the present day as he learns to be more independent and flashbacks to young Owen, often told through semi-animated drawings. Owen himself is winsome and naïve, still somewhat of a child who has come a long way and has far yet to go. My earlier suspicion of documentaries being potentially manufactured doesn’t apply to him, since he is inherently earnest and open whether a camera is there or not. Ron called this sincerity a “compensatory strength” to offset Owen’s social weaknesses and mentioned that the cameraman called him one of the best subjects he’d filmed.

Interspersed with Owen and Ron’s narration are a multitude of film clips from Disney classics and even an unexpected cameo from some voice actors. Honestly, I can’t imagine any bigger compliment to Disney filmmakers than this movie, a tribute to how their work literally helped to change Owen’s life, which might explain why they allowed the use of their fiercely guarded films for a reasonable price. As much as we all love Disney movies, they are mere entertainment to most of us, while to Owen, they were a lens through which he could understand daily life. In a world that was suddenly hard to make sense of, he latched onto this “scripted constant” that provided accessible insights, which the film’s editors managed to translate to the screen. When Owen and his brother regret having to grow up, they reference the likes of Mowgli and Peter Pan. When Owen talks about enduring bullying in school, we see Quasimodo’s flogging in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. When Owen suffers his first taste of romantic pain, we remember Ariel’s despair over Eric in The Little Mermaid. During Owen’s first night on his own, he watches Bambi.

Image result for life, animated 2016

The film’s most fascinating visual touch is two extended animated sequences of a story Owen wrote called The Land of the Lost Sidekicks, brought to life by the French animation studio Mac Guff. In a swirling, painterly style, Owen imagines himself as the protector of various Disney side characters, battling despair and darkness. It’s simple yet profound, like so much of Owen’s story. Owen was encouraged that Life, Animated showed him to be, not a sidekick, but on a hero’s journey, and the struggles and joys he goes through depict him as a person, rather than a collection of tics as autism may seem at first glance. As Owen relates during a climactic speech, those with autism can latch onto any number of fixations, and Disney films allowed him to comprehend a constantly changing world. During the Q & A afterward, Ron confirmed autism’s similar patterns when he and a young man in the front row, much like Owen, shared a few back-and-forth lines of dialogue from The Lion King. (I was also interested to learn from Ron that Owen has branched out into live-action films and enjoys the Dark Knight trilogy as well.)

It may not be saying much, but Life, Animated is one of the best documentaries I’ve seen, and despite its independent status, I do hope it gets some notice for a Best Documentary nomination during Oscar season. Not only does it ennoble the Disney canon as “human sagas of struggle and triumph,” but it provides an endearing look at how they helped shape one boy’s inspiring development. Owen’s family is a constant encouragement for him, worrying and helping him however they can, and one question his parents asked was particularly resonant: “Who decides what a meaningful life is?” Ron said his wife and he asked it many times, but Owen finally answered it. “I do.”

Best line: (see above)

 

Rank: No documentary has made me reconsider my opinion of them like this one, but I still can’t help but put them in a different category from “regular” movies. Thus, any documentary reviews won’t be eligible for my List but will just use a simple Five Star system, and this one is definitely worth Five Stars!

 

© 2016 S. G. Liput
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