It was the poet John Donne who sagely and insightfully noted that “No man is an island entire of itself”, a nod to humanity’s shared, almost primal need for connection with others and the shared sense of meaning that results.
There is no doubt he would see a thematic corollary in Life, Animated, based on the book by Ron Suskind, which takes as its central theme the idea that everyone needs to feel a deep sense of attachment with those around them to make sense of life and navigate their way through it.
Telling the story of Owen Suskind, who at age 3 stopped speaking and sleeping, retreating from the bubbly, vivacious child he had once been to the alarm of his parents Ron and Cornelia Suskind, Life, Animated takes us on a heartfelt journey to re-discovering what connection means to someone without the means to fully articulate it.
As Owen’s therapist, who is preparing for a milestone move into his own apartment in an assisted-living facility at the age of 23 notes at one point, Owen is a young man with a deep need to connect with others who lacks the social awareness to bring those connections to life.
In that regard most particularly, this touching, emotionally-evocative and narratively well-balanced documentary, is illuminating in a most fundamental way, disabusing viewers of the notion that people on the autistic spectrum have no need of the kind of friendships and relationships we take for granted.
In fact, Owen is at pains to point out, in his charmingly unedited fashion, to a conference of autism experts in Rennes, France, that “it’s wrong” to see autistic people as shunning social contacts.
They want it; they simply don’t know, much of the time, how to make it happen.
That deep longing for connection, which evaded Owen, his parents and big brother Walt for years, came about to everyone’s surprise through the Disney animated films that the family would often watch together.
A tradition prior to Owen’s retreat into his bafflingly inaccessible world, movies like Aladdin, The Little Mermaid and The Lion King became even more important when it became apparent that this was the only time that Owen would light up, laugh and come alive.
Owen knew all the dialogue off by heart and so the family began communicating using the dialogue from these films, in which Owen found not only a reassuring sense of continuity and safety, but through he was able to make sense of the world around him.
Autistic people such as Owen routinely use these “affinities” as they’re known to process the kind of stimuli that we make sense of without even thinking and to ascribe meaning to social situations and life events that might otherwise overwhelm and frustrate them.
Throughout Life, Animated, we see again how pivotal these films are to Owen coming to grips with life and the emotional lives of his family and friends.
In one instance related by Ron Suskind, who along with wife Cornelia and Walt provide brief but illuminating vox pops to camera, Walt was seen looking particularly downcast after a lively, fun birthday party.
Unsure why their son was sitting morosely at a table outside, Ron and Cornelia were to ask him what was wrong when Owen comes in and announces that Walt is sad because he doesn’t want to grow up like Mowgli and Peter Pan.
This statement from a boy not prone to using words at all, much less the expression of complex emotional ideas, startled the Suskinds who realised that the Disney films were providing their son with a means for interpreting and articulating the emotional life of he and his family.
It’s a pattern repeated again and again when Owen watches Dumbo to cope with packing up to move out home, immerses himself in Bambi on his first night alone 75 miles from his parents, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame to deal with the pernicious bullying that was a sad part of his high school years.
These films became Owen’s passport to life as we know it, a way for him to relate and connect in a way that had otherwise evaded him.
Life, Animated makes ample use as you might expect of the Disney animation Owen adores, but it also employs its own, wholly arresting, breathtakingly moving animation to convey key moments from his life and the story he wrote The Land of Lost Sidekicks which featured many of the key secondary characters from the films.
These sidekicks became pivotally important to a boy who often said he didn’t feel like a hero and saw himself as the protector and cheerleader for the characters people often overlook; the story is also Owen’s powerful way of communicating that he has a great deal to offer if only people will give him a chance.
Through the deft direction of Roger Ross Williams and the nuanced cinematography of Thomas Bergmann who became so much a part of Owen’s life that he was able to capture the young man’s joyously unedited reactions to many events in his life, Life, Animated winningly charts Owen’s descent into silence, his reawakening through Disney animation and his growth as a young man in a relationship, who’s living alone, working three part-time jobs and running, naturally enough a Disney club.
(The club provides one of the most delightfully upbeat moments of the film when Owen explains that he founded it to meet people and become more people, finishing off with “It worked!” and an infectiously broad grin, an enduring feature of this remarkable young man.)
This uplifting film is a visually-rich, emotionally-transportive, revelatory triumph for everyone involved, capturing not only Owen’s uniquely personal journey but also the deep, abiding need everyone has, no matter who they are, for complex, meaningful connections with others, and for the recognition, understanding and chance to contribute to peoples’ lives that this brings.
That Owen found this in Disney films is important and a key element of his remarkable life-affirming story, as is the intense bonds between he and his family.
But far more important, and something that is confirmed over and over again in Life, Animated is that we all need to feel like we belong and that if this is in place, there are really no limits to the achievements, richness or emotional fulfillment that anyone can experience.
For an insight into the making of the film, check out Life, Animated: a small boy, the little mermaid and a happily ever after.