Life, Animated is an exceptional documentary from Academy Award–winning director Roger Ross Williams, based on Ron Suskind’s best-selling book, Life, Animated: A Story of Sidekicks, Heroes, and Autism. It is the inspirational story of Owen Suskind (the son of Ron Suskind, the Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist), who just shy of his third birthday developed regressive autism and essentially stopped communicating, with one exception: Owen loved to watch Disney movies with his brother, often watching the same scenes over and over again. He nonetheless remained isolated until he and his family discovered a unique way to communicate by immersing themselves in the world of classic Disney animated films. Not only did the family reunite, in a sense, but they’ve also managed to harness this insight for therapy and tremendous opportunity for intimacy, growth, and fulfillment.
This emotional coming-of-age story follows Owen as he graduates to adulthood and takes his first steps toward independence. As Owen gleefully points out, “I wanted to be more popular and have more friends, so I started a Disney club … and it worked!” Worked so well, in fact, that Owen eventually manages to live on his own in a group home and later gets a job. Owen’s story and his family’s journey are awe-inspiring because we witness not only their successes but also the director’s intimate portrayal of Owen’s and each of his family member’s challenges and emotional turmoil. The elaborate and expressive yet cohesive visual language—four different styles of animation no less—is so exquisitely executed and integrated with the family’s home movies, in situ filming, as well as vast array of interviews that Owen’s world opens up to us. We observe the wealth of his experience and the shortcomings of the world and perception we call reality. This documentary is also an artistic tour de force!
I have a lot of catching up to do! This is the first documentary I’ve seen by Roger Ross Williams (born September 16, 1973). He is an American television news, documentary and entertainment director, producer, and writer. He wrote, produced, and directed the 2010 Academy Award–winning short documentary, Music by Prudence; his first feature-length documentary, the critically acclaimed God Loves Uganda (2013); as well as the celebrated documentary short Blackface (2015), now on CNN.com; and so much more. Let’s make note of the fact here that Roger Ross Williams is the first African American director to win an Academy Award in his category of Documentary Shorts, and the first-ever African American director to win an Academy Award for directing and producing a film, short, or feature! As in, WHAT? Here is an interview that focuses on his award and the changes and mentoring he is engendering in the academy and Hollywood: