Earlier this year, there was a documentary that came out called “Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe” which tackled the idea that vaccines cause Autism and therefore should be an even bigger reason to get rid of them once and for all. The movie stirred up a lot of controversy after being accepted into, and soon after rejected by, the Tribeca Film Festival. I haven’t seen the film myself, but I’ve heard tons of negative criticisms on how inaccurate and propaganda-esque it actually is, focusing more on hatred instead of statistics. As someone diagnosed with mild cases of Aspergers Syndrome and ADD, I can easily say that I’ll most likely never see “Vaxxed” because of all of the negativity it spews. When I hear parents talk about how vaccines caused their child’s mental disability, I think to myself “Why are you focusing more on why your kid’s the way they are, and instead just focus on who they are?” “Vaxxed” seems like the type of movie made as a way for parents to say that they’re ashamed of who their kids are by blaming it on things created to help them be healthier rather than accepting their uniqueness with open arms. News flash to those ignorant human beings: we are all created differently and aren’t all “perfect” in your eyes.
Take a look now at “Life, Animated.” Academy-Award winning filmmaker Roger Ross Williams’ latest documentary tells the story of Owen Suskind, a boy who, at the age of 3, loses his ability to speak, leading to his diagnosis of Autism. Instead of blaming the “evil” vaccine companies for his son’s disorder, Owen’s parents Ron, who wrote the New York Times bestseller that this film’s based from, and Cornelia go on a mission to bring the boy they once knew back to them. It’s through the powerful love of his parents, along with his older brother Walter, and the magic of Disney’s endless amount of classic animated films, that gets Owen to not only speak, but express himself more than his family ever thought he could or would. These are people who embrace Owen’s unusual way of looking at the world instead of shunning people trying to get children immune to diseases. And thanks to Williams, animator Mac Guff, and an entire crew of individuals keen on bringing his story to the big screen, now we can explore Owen’s strange yet magical life, both how he sees it and how it changes those who get the pleasure of being around him.
Adam Johnston, the creator of the YouTube channel/website “YourMovieSucks,” once talked about how he judges documentaries compared to conventional narratives. When talking about the film “The Act of Killing” in his “Top 10 of 2013” video, he mentioned how he asks himself when watching a documentary “If this exact same movie were fictional, would it still be a great movie?” I would answer that question in regards to “Life, Animated” with an enthusiastic “Yes.” It’s easy to say that this is a story that can feel manipulative at times, especially considering its subject matter. However, from an objective standpoint, it’s hard to deny how fascinating and well-paced this film overall is. As per most documentaries, this has the typical interview segments with the film’s subject along with other main players in his life-story. What makes “Life, Animated” stand out amongst other documentaries with similar formulas, though, is the way Williams tells the story.
Several sequences are shown through bits of animation, a decent amount of them being still sketches that help to illustrate a dark or light moment in Owen’s past. There’s a section in particular when we’re told about Owen getting bullied in school and how he didn’t see himself as a hero, but rather a sidekick. This belief leads Owen to write a story about “The Land of the Lost Sidekicks.” It’s in this part of the story that not only showcases the brilliant animation the fine folks at Mac Guff but also made me realize that this movie meant much more to me than it would for many others. For all of the introverted creative minds and outsiders who feel like they’re misunderstood souls and/or don’t see themselves as anything particularly extraordinary in certain settings, “The Land of the Lost Sidekicks” may very well hit home for you. I wouldn’t consider myself an individual who gets emotional during movies, but it was in this part about halfway through the movie that made me not only love Owen, but it made my physically tear up a bit. If a story can get me to love it in some way, that’s one thing. But when a story can get me emotional enough to the point that I’m nearly crying, it automatically gets much praise from this individual without a question.
It’s very easy to see this coming off as manipulative or forced, and in a sense, it is just that. From my perspective, though, Roger Ross Williams tackles this subject and this particularly extraordinary human being with maturity, grace, and respect. It’s hard not to love this guy and his passion for Disney films, especially if you grew up watching “The Lion King” or “Aladdin” on VHS, those of which came packaged in tacky yet magical “clamshell” boxes. Watching the joy of Owen watching his beloved Disney films, the same ones that helped bring him back to his parents, is the joy that all of us had when watching them as children. It’s the kind of enthusiasm that I long for once more but is hard for me to find. As with all humans, Owen does go through more tough times as his life-story goes on during the 92 minutes this lasts. However, these tough moments are quickly made up for by having something great happen to Owen pretty soon after. With every tragedy comes something grand, and Owen is the prime example of that.
It might be the nostalgic inner child in me talking, the empathetic human who shares a similar mental trait to that of the main subject, or even the optimistic movie lover whose palette is broader and wider than most, but “Life, Animated” moved me. Throughout this documentary, I had the biggest grin on my face because of Owen’s joy for life and the cartoon characters that liven him up. Also throughout it, I got very emotional. The fact that this family did what they did to bring their son “back to life,” so to speak, is absolutely beautiful. It has an even grander tug on the heartstrings since they embrace him with open arms and use his passion for Disney classics to their advantage. Early on there’s a scene involving Owen’s dad talking to him using a puppet of Iago from “Aladdin” during the time when he wasn’t speaking at all. There are so many reasons to choke up from the story in this particular sequence alone, though the main effect comes from Owen’s father Ron holding back tears both when telling the story to the camera and imagining him in that time. It’s scenes like this, along with many others, that make you want to find Williams, the Suskind family, and anyone else involved with the movie and give each and every one of them a great big hug, thanking them for bringing this story to the silver screen. Well, that’s what I would like to do, at least.
As I said, some may find this film to be emotionally manipulative, and that’s completely understandable. Considering, though, that this ended up winning the Directing Prize for a documentary at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, I think it’s safe to say that the majority of folks will at least like it. If you’re someone like me, though, whether you grew up on Disney movies, saw yourself as an introverted dreamer growing up, or have been diagnosed with some form of Autism, believe me when I say you’re going to love this. “Life, Animated” is a celebration of the human spirit, the effect of Disney, and the love a family has to one of their own. It’s funny, sweet, shocking, and downright emotional, and I cannot recommend it enough. To the parents of Autistic kids who’ve blamed vaccine companies for their child’s distinctive traits, just remember to love your son or daughter and embrace them for who they are and not what your ideal vision for them was. The Suskind family did, so why don’t you take a crack at it?