Life, Animated, 2016.
Directed by Roger Ross Williams.
A coming of age story about a boy and his family who overcame great challenges by turning Disney animated movies into a language to express love, loss, kinship and brotherhood.
Disney, for many, is a staple of their childhood, and also a favourite collection of films up until adulthood. It is, for some, unbeknownst to many until now, a life-changing asset. Life, Animated shows us the story of Owen Lipskin who developed autism at the age of 3, and found a way of talking through Disney quotes. For his family and friends, who thought they’d lost communication with him, it was a miracle unlike any other.
Roger Ross Williams, the film’s director, may have largely worked in television and shorts, but he has an expert craft when bringing this story to life. Working within the confines of a fairly simple structure, Williams introduces animated segments into the documentary to highlight how Owen views the world, whilst also bringing to attention the brilliance of animation. It also lends an energy to the otherwise gradual introspection, especially when coupled with the home movies and general b-roll of Owen out and about that may seem more pedestrian.
The documentary’s best quality is the manner in which it depicts autism – an illness largely overlooked in documentary and film (bar the famous performances in films like Rain Man and I Am Sam) – holding your hand as it goes over the difficulties. Owen is such a likeable and interesting figure, you are drawn (no pun intended) into the story of his life. Showing his early years, just before and as the illness struck, and onto his teenage years, we are privy to an arduous decade where his family and Owen struggled with making sense of things. Williams stitches in clips from Disney, expressing the joy that Owen felt from watching them, and tugging at your heartstrings for the sheer pleasure that those films bring, and what it gave to this family. Hearing about how it affected Owen’s struggle with autism makes for a film wonderfully different. There are moments where you really feel for Owen, but it mostly a film that makes you applaud the simple fun in life – entertainment and inspiration.
For the majority of the film, we see Owen at 23 – just about to move into his own place, and close to graduating. These are huge steps in life, and more so for a person who isn’t as well-adjusted to the hustle and bustle of life as the general populace. There are moments of sheer bliss, where Owen finds independence, and acclimatises, or finishes his education. But, as life brings light, it also brings darkness, and problems with companionship and loneliness can also be found in the doc’s narrative. It certainly needs these tougher scenes, as the film for some may appear too buoyant.
Despite the younger point of interest in the film, with Disney, Life, Animated is a universal film that deserves to be seen by all. It captures your imagination and heart in equal measure, staying with you long after. And, if it doesn’t make you want to revisit some Disney classics, it may have been lost on you.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★