Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Review: "Life, Animated"

The magic of movies knows no limits. Films entertain, they broaden our minds and make our hearts grow larger. As Roger Ebert aptly put it, “Movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.”

One of those people is Owen Suskind. Twenty years ago, at age 3, he was diagnosed with severe regressive autism. As his parents, Ron and Cornelia tell it, he was a normal, happy kid who liked to play and romp. Then one day he stopped talking. Sometimes he would spout gibberish, but mostly he kept silent.

It felt like someone had kidnapped my child, Ron says. And in a way, Owen was stolen from them, and from the world. Unable to cope with the barrage of sensory input, he essentially shut down and hid in the dark forest of his mind.

“Life, Animated,” the new documentary by Oscar winner Roger Ross Williams, shows us a haunting photo of the tyke standing frozen in a hallway, staring at nothing. This became his life.

It went on like this for years.

Specialists and schools made little progress. The only thing that truly seemed to lift Owen’s spirits was watching movies, especially Disney animation. He would start to repeat bits of dialogue he had memorized. He would engage more. Hope glimmered.

Ron, a noted political writer, tells of a revelatory and heartbreaking moment when Owen was 9. Seeing a puppet of Iago, the evil little parrot sidekick from “Aladdin,” he put it on his hand and hid behind the bed, speaking to Owen in an imitation of Gilbert Gottfried, who gave Iago his voice.

“Owen, how does it feel to be you?” Iago/Ron asked. “Not good,” Owen replied, clearly and sadly. “Because I don’t have any friends.”

This was, Ron says, his first real conversation with his son.

Like many amazing stories, it’s one that if you read it in a book, you wouldn’t believe it. Through years of therapy and using the portal of Disney movies, Owen returned to the world. Through watching film, he learned to talk, to relate to other people, to open up.

We meet him as he is today, a thoughtful, handsome young man – he bears an uncanny resemblance to the kid from the TV show, “The Wonder Years.” Now he’s about to graduate from school, get his own apartment and go out into the world.

Owen has the amusing odd habit of high-pitched muttering to himself as he walks, chin down as he plows ahead. Then we listen a little closer, and realize he’s doing an unending stream of imitations of Disney dialogue.

Williams deftly mixes contemporaneous footage of Owen and his family with old photographs, home video and such. He also uses animation to illustrate Owen’s inner mind, first as little “chapter” introductions in his story, but then moving on to entire cartoon sequences. Depicted as moppet-headed little boy, he does battle with a villain he invented, the Fuzzbutch, who threatens his favorite Disney characters.

Interestingly, rather than identifying with the heroes, Owen adores the sidekicks. In the inner movie playing in a loop inside his head, he sees himself as their friend and protector.

The documentary traces Owen’s long journey from “The Glop” – his own term for his dark, uncommunicative years – and maps out the road ahead, one that contains both joy and uncertainty. We see him in a tender romance with Emily, another young person with special needs, and witness the fragility of that. We talk to his older brother, Walter, who knows that one day their parents won’t be able to watch over Owen.

“I’ll be ready. I’ve been getting ready my whole life,” Walter says.

“Life, Animated” is a movie about love. It’s about a boy who was lost, and then found, one who never wanted to grow up, and did.

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