Quietly moving doc Life, Animated has a hook worthy of the most shameless of Hollywood weepies, offering tragedy and a miracle and much ado about the power of movies themselves. But the film is tender and patient, as fascinated by the challenges of daily life as it is by the dramatic medical mystery at its heart. Just before he turned 3, Owen Suskind stopped communicating with the world, giving up language for gibberish — in the words of his father, reporter Ron Suskind, Owen had become “unglued.” (Ron Suskind published a memoir, Life, Animated, in 2014.) Doctors diagnosed Owen as autistic, and his family lost agonizing years of his childhood, unable to communicate with him.
But then, twice, at humdrum moments, the words came back: First, Owen spoke a line of dialogue along with a video of Aladdin, one of the many animated Disney films the Suskinds watched with their son. The next jolt came almost four years later. At the birthday party of his older brother, Walt, Owen piped up with his observation: “Walter doesn’t want to grow up, like Mowgli or Peter Pan.”
Owen's parents, both warm and endearing presences, tell these stories, still teary in interviews. The filmmakers depict key moments in animation that suggests the world as interpreted through a mind like Owen's. Most memorable is the day Ron hid under a bedspread and tried speaking to 6-year-old Owen through a puppet of Iago, the parrot Gilbert Gottfried voiced in Aladdin. That sparked their first conversation in years, and the elder Suskind's imitation of the shouty comic's shouty bird is such fun that viewers probably could claim their tears are from laughter.
Like Suskind's book, the film is attentive to the grain of life as it’s lived. The breakthroughs come in flashbacks as we follow Owen, now an eager and talkative young man in his early 20s, feeling his way into adulthood — and seeking comfort and meaning in his Disney movies. He graduates from a special-needs high school, gets a part-time job, moves into an assisted-living apartment where he is trusted with making everyday choices. At his school, Owen hosts meetings of a club of Disney fans whom we watch discuss what life lessons they have found in The Lion King. While putting through mini-golf, his brother Walt suggests, with love and gentleness, that maybe Owen should try kissing that first girlfriend of his with more than just his lips; afterward, interviewed by the filmmakers, Walt makes the incontrovertible point that there's no Disney role model for the hard work of adult relationships.
Life, Animated is more cheery than you might expect, and not just because of the clips from The Little Mermaid and Peter Pan (witness Owen play-acting the swordfights). Even in some late scenes of emotional turmoil, when Owen is denied what he most wants, the Suskinds are singularly calm and encouraging, nudging their son and brother along into a life he's just discovering can hurt. Brother Walt speaks with clear-sighted awe about the caretaking responsibility he knows will fall to him one day, as his parents age. Life, Animated is rich with insight about the role our popular culture plays in child development, but it's richer still in love.