Life Animated Blu-ray Review

Life-Animated

Life, Animated is Academy Award winning director Roger Ross Williams’s (God Loves Uganda) adaptation of Ron Suskind’s book Life, Animated: A Story of Sidekicks, Heroes and Autism.

In the early 90’s, Ron Suskind’s younger son Owen went from a chatty and energetic 3 year old, to alarmingly regressing in verbal, motor and emotional skills, culminating in a diagnosis of Autism. Owen lost his speech, which his parents were told might never return, but a breakthrough came when the family were watching The Little Mermaid.

Owen kept repeating what his parents thought was gibberish: ‘Juicervose! Juicervose!’ and rewinding to the moment Ariel exchanges her voice for legs with Ursula. It was only when his mother Cornelia realised Owen wasn’t asking for juice but saying lyrics of Ursula’s song (‘Just your voice!’) that Owen’s parents realised they’d found a way to communicate with their son: via Disney dialogue. Owen struggled to interpret reality, but could interpret real events via the storylines of Disney films and taught himself to read by memorising the credit sequences. His parents ran with it, speaking to him in Disney dialogue that Owen might respond to with the next line, or answer as himself. Regardless, it was a way the family could access a child who hadn’t made eye contact or spoken a sentence to them in over a year, and a way he could grow and understand the world.

I first came across the Suskind family’s story via WNYC Radiolab’s podcast episode Juicervose (say it as you see it); Life, Animated takes it a step further, following Owen through the year that he graduates, moves into an apartment of his own, navigates his first relationship and gets a job.

The documentary is epistolary, edited together from family video footage, interviews with Owen and his family, Disney clips, and beautifully rendered, evocative black and white animation of Owen’s childhood negotiating a confusing world of garbled noise. The mix keeps the whole captivating, there is always something fresh for the eyes, and clip selections are well placed and illustrate the narrative clearly. The whole thing works really well and moves fluidly.

Autism has many degrees and variations; there is no umbrella treatment; in the early 90’s attitude and understanding was less advanced, a diagnosis did not promise an easy future for a child. Not being someone who works with Autistic people or has a great deal of knowledge on the condition, I was astonished at the insight Williams’s documentary provides into an Autistic reality, and would recommend it on the strength of this alone.

Owen Suskind happens to be Autistic; he also wants a job, his own apartment, a relationship, and independence from his parents, just like anyone else.

Owen’s interviews are revealing as he speaks about himself, how he felt when the world suddenly degenerated into a garbled mass, and the things that confuse

and elate him. Anyone who has ever emerged from childhood through adolescence into adulthood can understand the difficulties of learning to negotiate a world that keeps changing the moment they think they understand it… Is there anyone who wouldn’t identify with this on some level?

DVD extras include commentary with the Suskind family, deleted scenes, short film ‘Land of the Lost Sidekicks’, the trailer and an educational resource.

E J Robinson

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