Documentary is a genre that is often overlooked in favour of fictional narratives but, in this case, the two are merged.
Owen Suskind, 23, is a man who is grappling with autism. Life, Animated is his story; one that follows him and his family from his initial diagnosis at age 4, through to the current day as he moves to his own assisted living apartment.
What is remarkable about Owen is that he also happens to be the world’s biggest Disney movie fan. His love for Disney began in early childhood and would prove to be the key that unlocked his ability to communicate with his family.
Owen was a ‘normal’ child up until the age of 3, at which point he stopped talking, lost his motor skills and refused to make eye contact. For an entire year, his parents were heartbroken as they watched their bubbly son retreat into a private world. At around age 5, Owen spoke for the first time in nearly two years - a line from The Little Mermaid. For his parents, this was a revelation. Their child could speak!
It’s from this point that Disney movies and the characters in them become Owen’s friends and translators. He uses the plots and scripts to decode an increasingly overwhelming world.
The magic of this film is the way that director Roger Ross Williams weaves together multiple strands; the story of the loving parents who never lose faith in their son, the protective brother who knows that Owen will one day become his responsibility alone, the love affair with Owen and his girlfriend Emily, and the overriding story of autism; what it is and what actually happens to people who live with it.
In the same way that Disney distils life’s overarching themes of love, loss, struggle, displacement, triumph over evil, this film tells the story of Owen as though he is a Disney character – a hero who is exiled (like Simba in The Lion King), suffers bullying and intimidation (like Mowgli in The Jungle Book), and who falls in love (like every Disney hero ever).
But Owen is a real boy and, in real life, happy endings take longer than 90 minutes to arrive. Disney movies rarely raise a tear but this film will leave you snot-soaked; take tissues and prepare yourself for one of the best documentaries of the year.
Life, Animated opens in Australian cinemas in limited release on Thursday September 29th.