‘Life, Animated’
Director:
Roger Ross Williams
Genre: Documentary
Rating: PG
3 (out of 5) Globes

The movies save the day in “Life, Animated,” but not in some vague, generically uplifting way. In the case of Owen Suskind, they were a way to coax him out of a hard-locked shell. At the age of 3, Owen abruptly showed signs of autism. “He just disappeared,” his parents recall, remembering how he didn’t look at them for an entire year and a half. Then one day, reared on just enough classic Disney animated films, he started quoting “Aladdin” and later “Peter Pan.” Wielding the company’s handsome back catalogue, they taught him how to communicate again, how to relate to the world through the films’ heart-rending sagas, even if he would never be 100 percent.

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When Roger Ross Williams’ doc enters the scene, Owen is in his early 20s, still boyish and still boyishly excitable. He still needs Disney films, and happily so: He’s formed a group of Disney fanatics who rewatch their favorite titles, discuss the life lessons they impart and act out the most outlandish scenes. This tight-knit community has turned him back into a gabby ray of sunshine, with occasional dark moments. The doc is there as he’s graduated from a special-needs high school and about to light out on his own, in a condo not far from his doting parents. He experiences first love and first heartbreak — things the Disney films, which end with lovers united, can’t teach him.

“Life, Animated” is a gory tearjerker, toggling between observational present tense and the past, which is often depicted in squiggly animated form in fitting with Owen’s big love. (Williams is sharp at cueing up relevant Disney clips, which gain even more power in the context of what they mean to Owen.) But it’s never maudlin, and nor is it gloomy. Autism is a condition often portrayed as a nightmare, for the sufferer and their loved ones. The Suskinds go through the ringer, but they’re also living day-to-day with it, and their resilience has resulted in a young man who’s alert and bubbly and lovable. There’s a lot here about how pop culture impacts us, but even more about how adversity can bring out our very best.

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