Life, Animated review – how Disney films helped a boy with autism

Incredibly moving documentary takes us into the interior life of an autistic person, and explores how films helped him communicate with the outside world

Autism is a widely misunderstood condition; something Oscar-winning documentary film-maker Roger Ross Williamss latest project attempts to tackle. Focusing on the life of Owen Suskind, who was diagnosed as autistic aged three, its a beguiling mix of animated storytelling and narration that doesnt flinch from exploring the emotional highs and lows that accompany a life with autism.

One of Williamss many accomplishments with Life, Animated is using the animated segments to communicate what the world is like for autistic people. Conversations become garbled, with words almost impossible to pick out, and the everyday noises and situations which for most of us are the background ambience of life become a cacophony of imposing sound. Owens parents talk in heartbreakingly honest moments about how they feared they had lost their son for ever.

Thats where the other star of the show comes in. Disneys animated films provide the connecting link from Owens world to that of his parents. Using dialogue from films such as Dumbo, Bambi and Aladdin, Owen is able to communicate (he taught himself to read by studying the films credits). Not only does the film open its audiences eyes to the world of autism it also sheds new light on the almost Shakespearean qualities of films like The Lion King. Owen is able to traverse the world using lessons learned from the movies. They help him form friendships and talk to his parents; he even creates a Disney club for likeminded fans, of which there are many.

The film also charts Owens move towards living independently, and as a 23-year-old, the limits of Disneys world are tested. His brother Walter talks about the difficulty in using Disney films to talk about sex concluding Disney porn might be the only way to really get across the finer points. One of the most poignant parts of the entire film comes when Walter discusses his fears as he gets older: what will happen when his parents are too old to care for Owen, will he be able to cope, what will become of his brother?

Its that combination of despair and joy, victories and defeats that make Life, Animated such a compelling rendering of life with autism. Owen has to cope with the same life challenges as anyone else: moving out of home, breaking up with a girlfriend, having a job interview. And Williams doesnt patronise or sentimentalise his world. Things are difficult, seemingly insurmountable at times, but with family, patience and yes, Disney films Owen and the Suskinds are able to overcome them. Its an educational achievement masquerading as a feel-good documentary, and a must-watch.

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