Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, February 20, 2017

OSCARS 2017: Life, Animated (2016)

I've made references before to how the Academy favors movies that emphasize the importance of movies. The documentary categories are usually exempt from this but occasionally one slips through. “Life, Animated” is almost literally about how cinema can positively change somebody's life. Then again, this one is also an issue documentary in a way, since it's also about a young man living with autism. I don't know if this combination will lead the movie to Oscar gold, as there's more high profile nominees but the film's feel-good attributes may take it further then expected.  I went into “Life, Animated” with some expectations, as Gilbert Gottfried had mentioned the film and the true story behind it a few times on his podcast.

For the first two years of his life, Owen Suskind seemed like an ordinary little boy. Upon turning three, Owen's speech development halted entirely, leading to a long period of silence. Soon afterwards, he was diagnosed with autism. During these quiet years, Owen would become fascinated with Disney's Animated Features. After nearly giving up hope, Owen's parents would begin to talk to the boy by quoting his beloved cartoons. The tactic worked. Now in his twenties, and moving out on his own for the first time, Owen's obsession with Disney and other cartoons remains.

“Life, Animated” is as much about a film lover's connection with the media as it is autism. The laser-point-intense focus Owen displays for something seemingly trivial is not uncommon for his condition. Several times, the film points out just how much Owen sees the adult world through the lens of Disney, such as when his older brother nervously attempts to educate the boy about sex. Yet, in a way, the Disney stories enrich Owen's life. During his fraught high school years, Owen begins to relate to the various sidekick characters common in Disney cartoons. More touching is the way Owen's parents reconnect with their child, using the cartoons as a baseline. Watching his dad tear up, while describing using a puppet of Iago the Parrot to make a communication break-through with his son, shows the kind of real emotion you can't replicate.

As a movie partially concerned with animation, “Life, Animated” does feature some lively animated sequences. The film brings Owen's fantasy world to life. In a number of gorgeous moments, functioning like moving water color paintings, we see a young Owen sneak away into the woods, to the World of Sidekicks. There, he befriends his favorite cartoon characters – Iago, Rafiki, Baloo – and comes to protect them from an amorphous villain he names “Fuzz Butt.” The bad guy appears as an amorphous cloud that fogs up Owen's perception of the world, a suitable metaphor for how autism affects someone's ability to process stimulation. These stories are from Owen's own mind, giving us a keener peek into the boy's mind.

“Life, Animated” isn't just a feel-good flick about Disney cartoons helping a young man come out of his shell. It also focuses on the difficulties Owen has joining the adult world. After moving into his own home – a monitored apartment complex occupied by other autists – Owen paces from room to room, uncertain what to do. Suskind's girlfriend, who he has a seemingly chaste relationship with, lives above. When she breaks up with him, Owen goes into crisis mode. The boy's parents wonder to the camera what will happen to Owen when they die. Despite these struggles, the film ultimately ends on an uplifting note. Owen is doing what he can to make his own life and even finds himself in a position to help other individuals with autism.

If nothing else, it's pretty neat that Owen has gotten to meet Gottfried and Jonathan Freeman, the voice of Jafar, as it's obvious how much the boy admires them. “Life, Animated” definitely goes for the heart strings with a little too much gusto. A few of the interviews, between Owen and his parents, feel a little over rehearsed. Still, this is a charming, touching documentary that should especially speak to anybody who loves Disney or has ever been a little different. I doubt it'll take home the Oscars but I'm glad I had a chance to see it. [7/10]

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