Review: ‘Life, Animated’

Hot Docs 2016

2 mins read

Life, Animated
(USA, 91 min.)
Dir. Roger Ross Williams
Programme: Special Presentations (International Premiere)

For years autism was considered a kind of prison, where children would suddenly withdraw into themselves without a coherent connection to the outside world. Life, Animated tells the extraordinary tale of Owen Suskind who found that through classic animated Disney films like The Lion King and The Jungle Book, he could develop communication skills to make sense of the world. With silence broken through repeated dialogue from these memorised films, Owen would grow to be able to finally find his voice and connect with the outside world.

The film does a fine job of detailing this process, providing both historical family photos and insightful interviews with the Suskind family. If the film was merely a showcase for this transformation it would still be an audience highlight, but what sets the work apart is the less overt aspects of its exploration. We see Owen moving out on his own while cracks begin to form in his worldview. The notion that the world is a complex place, where things don’t work out like they do in Disney films, has never found a richer outlet than Suskind’s journey.

Tying classic film clips and newly animated elements derived from Owen’s own storytelling skills, the film is a moving showcase of one family’s struggles and successes at living with autism. While the pacing lags at times and it veers closely into saccharine territory, Life, Animated possesses a remarkable sensitivity in storytelling and has well realised vérité moments (from baking cookies to breaking hearts) that elevate the film tremendously.

Jason Gorber is a film journalist and member of the Toronto Film Critics Association. He is the Managing Editor/Chief Critic at and a regular contributor for POV Magazine, and CBC Radio. His has written for Slashfilm, Esquire, The Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail, The National Post, Screen Anarchy, HighDefDigest, Birth.Movies.Death, IndieWire and more. He has appeared on CTV NewsChannel, CP24, and many other broadcasters. He has been a jury member at the Reykjavik International Film Festival, Calgary Underground Film Festival, RiverRun Film Festival, TIFF Canada's Top 10, Reel Asian and Fantasia's New Flesh Award. Jason has been a Tomatometer-approved critic for over 20 years.

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