AFI Docs '16: "Life, Animated" Review

One of the many nightmares that a parent can have in regard to their child, is for them to disappear. At 3 years old, Owen Suskind did just that. He wasn’t kidnapped. Autism took control of his life and garbled the way he interpreted the world around him. Life, Animated tells the story of the Suskind family and how they used Disney animated movies to make sense of the world and communicate with each other.

After a year of silence, Owen’s father Ron, realized that Owen was saying lines from the Disney film Beauty and The Beast. It became clear that Owen was using the movies that he’d seen to make sense of the world around him. The family began to communicate with Owen using the movies, which never changed, to help Owen understand the ever changing world around him.

Switching between home videos and present day, we’re able to see Owen and his family grow older. We’re entrenched with the family as the recall coping and dealing with Owen’s regressive Autism through the years in moving stories that have animations to go along with them. At the present time, Owen is about to graduate from a program that will help him live independently. We’re able to witness Owen deal with his first big heartbreak and living on his own.

Throughout the film, independent studio Mac Guff beautifully animates commentary from the family and even Owen’s story that he created. The animation both illustrates their words and gives us a glimpse into Owen’s mind and cast of characters. Pete Horner does an excellent job of mixing the audio in the film as well. The cacophony of sound that clashes in Owen’s ears is demonstrated with the sound bed of the film and helps to draw us into Owen’s world even more.

One issue I had with the film is that while it seeks to help us understand Owen’s world with Autism, it misses on a big opportunity to educate the viewer on the Autistic world asa whole. The microscopic viewpoint of one family with an amazing connection to Disney animated films makes for an interesting hook in a documentary, but what about other families that aren’t as fortunate? It’s pretty obvious that the Suskind family is a tight knit clan filled with love, the awesome ability to put Owen in a special school when he was younger, and a program when we meet him presently in the film. Yet, my mind went to the families of other children with Autism that may not have the same opportunity. 

Life, Animated is a solid documentary about the love of a family and perseverance of a young man with Autism. While some scenes seem stretched out for time, the feels are all throughout this film. Using Disney movies is not only a way to communicate amongst the Suskind family, but it’s just as easy to adapt and understand as a viewer of the film due to our own fondness of the animated classics. 

Rating: B

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Kevin Sampson

The fact that Kevin Sampson is not just a film critic, but a writer, producer, and director as well makes his understanding of cinema even better. Coming from a theoretical and hands on approach, he understands both sides of the struggle of viewing and creating great works. After receiving an MFA in Film & Electronic Media from American University in Washington, D.C in 2011, Kevin took his love for film to the next level by creating and producing Picture Lock, an entertainment website, podcast, and hour long film review TV show that runs on Arlington Independent Media’s public access station in Arlington, VA. The show covers new releases, classic films, and interviews with local filmmakers in the DMV area. He is also a member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association and African American Film Critics Association. He is currently looking forward to filming his first feature film in the near future. He believes that film is one of the most powerful art forms in the world, and he hopes that he can use the craft to inspire others and make a difference in it.