A heart-warming documentary, Life, Animated follows the autistic Owen Suskin as he prepares for the day when he graduates from school and moves out of his family home for the first time. Based on his journalist father's book, dad Ron explains that up until three Owen was a typical kid – as seen in a home video where they re-enact a scene from Peter Pan – but then "all of a sudden Owen vanishes." Owen retreated into himself, wouldn't talk beyond gibberish, and was eventually diagnosed with autism. Obsessed with Disney movies, the parents saw that they could communicate with their son through scenes and became determined to draw the Owen they once knew out…
A fascinating peek into autism, the big moments in Owen's life, the ones that form the backbone to the narrative – leaving school, getting a job, moving out – has to be filtered through Disney with Owen seeking out scenes that relate to his current predicament; a scene from Dumbo the day he's moving out, Bambi's mother dying for his first night alone. Despite concerns from his parents, there's a confidence that Owen will work through his fears; he has been the president of the Disney Club in his school, introducing and analysing movies with his class. One gorgeous scene has Owen present Jonathan Friedmann, the voice of Jafar in Aladdin, to his stunned class, only to be stunned in turn when Gilbert Gottfried (Iago) appears at the door.
But there's a disconnect at times. With limited home videos to pick from, there's a big jump between the confident Owen of today and the child he was; director Roger Ross Williams seems to realise this and buffs out Owen's childhood with animated sequences, beautifully realising Owen's thoughts through Owen's book: The Protector of Sidekicks. Owen, who always imagined himself as a Disney sidekick rather than the hero, wrote a tender story with himself as a three-year-old protecting minor Disney characters in a dark and foreboding forest.
This love of Disney raises concerns for older brother Walt. Disney is fantasy and the characters doesn't exist beyond the final kiss; Owen has a girlfriend and there will come a time when kissing will lead to sex. Walt, who is very aware that when his parents die his little brother will be looking to him for answers, is at a loss how to approach the question of sex other than (jokingly) showing him Disney porn. But then no parent or guardian has an answer for life's big questions: After a heart-breaking scenario, the distraught Owen rings his mother asking her, "Why is life so full of unfair pain and tragedy?" Good luck with that one.