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What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Life, Animated is an incredibly moving documentary from Oscar-winning filmmaker Roger Ross Williams, who chronicles the remarkable story of Owen Suskind, a young man with autism who has memorized shelves full of Disney movies and processes emotions and relationships via the characters and storylines in the films. Many, many Disney movies and characters are featured, as well as a couple of associated cast and crew members. The language is generally tame, with the exception of one exasperated use of "s--t." There are also references to bullying and sex and one joke about "Disney porn." The movie has mature themes related to disability, adult children with special needs, the meaning of independence, the way people communicate/connect, and more. Overall, it's a phenomenal, poignant movie that's ideal for families with young teens or middle-school-aged tweens.
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What's the story?
LIFE, ANIMATED is the remarkable story of the Suskind family. In the '90s, journalist Ron Suskind and his wife, Cornelia, had two young sons, Walter and Owen, and everything seemed fine -- until Owen stopped speaking and began to regress socially, physically, and academically. After a long struggle to secure a diagnosis, the Suskinds were told that Owen has autism and would likely never speak again. Left with movie nights as the only activity they can all enjoy together, they watch a long stream of Disney films on VHS -- and it's those movies that finally bring Owen back to them. The Suskinds discover that their child who was supposedly never going to speak again can, in fact, quote verbatim from Disney movies, which they eventually realize he has memorized in their entirety; not only that, but he can have conversations in character, expressing thoughts and emotions. Fast-forward to Owen in his early 20s: He's still Disney obsessed, but he's also ready to live on his own in an apartment complex for adults with special needs. Cue the happily-ever-after ending?
Is it any good?
Oscar winner Roger Ross Williams beautifully captures the unbelievably emotional story of a young man with autism and his lifelong love of Disney movies, which allow him to process the world. Owen is a delight, and his deep-seated obsession with Disney movies -- from Aladdin (one of the movie's highlights is when Gilbert Gottfried surprises him at an event) to Winnie the Pooh and everything in between. Unlike many fictional features about people with autism, the focus in Life, Animated remains firmly on Owen, rather than his incredibly articulate family. Of course their poignant recollections and contributions are integral to telling Owen's story -- and their relationships with him are a tribute to the way families of those with special needs ceaselessly advocate for and connect with their loved ones -- but Williams primarily allows Owen to speak for himself. Owen sees himself as a sidekick (like Gottfried's parrot, Iago), but he'd really love to be the hero of his own story.
It's no wonder that Disney gave filmmakers the OK to feature clips from its films (all of which are thoughtfully and carefully chosen to illustrate Owen's experiences), because the documentary is a testament to the power of the Disney legacy. Owen has grown up processing human behavior through animated films in which cartoonish emotions, expressions, and gestures are exaggerated and easier for him to interpret than real-life behavior. Audiences may initially tune in to see him show off his encyclopedic knowledge of Disney films, but what they'll remember is how Owen really is a hero as brave, clever, and strong as Disney's finest.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about what Disney films mean to Owen in Life, Animated. How did they change his life? His relationship with his family and his ability to communicate? What do you think it was about those films that reached him?
How does Life, Animated illustrate the importance of communication? Why is the ability to communicate so central to the human experience?
Who are the role models in this story? Why is it so important for Owen to be able to speak for himself and have his own place to live? Do you think he'll succeed?
Why do you think Owen is so drawn to the sidekicks in Disney movies? What do they represent, and how does that differ from the heroes?
- In theaters: July 1, 2016
- On DVD or streaming: October 11, 2016
- Cast: Owen Suskind, Ron Suskind
- Director: Roger Ross Williams
- Studio: The Orchard
- Genre: Documentary
- Topics: Brothers and Sisters, Friendship, Misfits and Underdogs
- Character strengths: Communication, Compassion, Perseverance
- Run time: 91 minutes
- MPAA rating: PG
- MPAA explanation: thematic elements, and language including a suggestive reference
- Awards/Honors: Common Sense Selection
- Last updated: September 20, 2019
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