Sundance 2016: Animated Disney Films as Therapy in 'Life, Animated'
by Alex Billington
January 30, 2016
We all know that movies can change lives, in small ways and in big ways. But that change is often internal, and it's hard to track exactly how we are affected. The documentary Life, Animated (which premiered at Sundance) is an absolutely wonderful documentary that perfectly captures how one autistic boy learned to communicate and engage with the world through Disney animated movies. It's a triumphant and inspiring story, but it's also a beautiful documentary that features many clips from Disney movies as well as original animation (by Mac Guff). The film is about Owen Suskind, following him as he moves into his own place for the first time in his life. His entire VHS collection of Disney movies is the very first thing he unpacks.
At Sundance last year, I was moved to tears by a film about autistic children called How to Dance in Ohio (please seek it out ASAP). Following in those footsteps is Life, Animated, a documentary that also examines autism and one of the most remarkable ways that one boy has figured out how to become independent. His love for Disney animated movies is what helped him open up and talk with others. His favorites include The Little Mermaid, The Lion King, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Beauty and the Beast and Pinocchio, although he seems to love just about every last one of them equally. During the Q&A it was revealed that Disney exec Sean Bailey is a champion of the doc and has allowed them to use footage and characters in this.
This doc is full of so much life. There's an outstanding score that builds up in certain scenes, making Owen's breakthrough moments (often recounted by his father Ron Suskind - who also wrote a book about all of this) even more powerful and emotional. While it addresses the struggles of raising an austic child, and being afraid that he may never communicate or be independent, it's still open and optimistic in the way it fully embraces the fact that these Disney movies are the key to his growth. Owen will suddenly pace around, reciting lines from the movies in a goofy voice, and it's nothing to make fun of. It's shown and presented in a way where this will make you smile and laugh and feel so happy that this is how he connects to our society.
Beyond the triumphant story of Owen's progress and growth, this documentary really reminded me of the power of great movies. One of the doctors points out that these animated Disney movies feature exaggerated expressions and emotions, and that's what Owen attaches onto while he's watching them. Owen, inspired by how much he loves this movies, hosts a viewing for the rest of his austic class, giving them a chance to open up and learn from them as well. It's impossible not to smile during these scenes. Even if you're no longer a kid and just don't like animated movies anymore, there's a certain magic to them that will light you up, and warm your heart, especially when you realize just how much they can and have changed lives for the better.
Alex's Sundance 2016 Rating: 9 out of 10
Follow Alex on Twitter - @firstshowing