Most documentaries are only as interesting as their subject. While there’s no denying that the subject of Oscar-nominated documentary Life, Animated, Owen Suskind – a young man who manages his autism with a love for Disney animated movies – is entirely charming, his story is just a little too simplistic to support a feature length documentary.
All the conflict in Owen’s story – his diagnosis, high school bullying, how he overcame his communication difficulties – is in the past. So Life, Animated’s first half hour, often retold in imaginative hand-drawn animation, is engaging enough. But the filmmakers are too intent on crafting an inspirational story of triumph over adversity to make the back half work. There seems to be little interest in interrogating the language around mental illness – “escapes the prison of autism” – nor the role privilege plays in Owen’s journey.
While all the animated sequences are moving and expressive, they’re in service of a lie: that Owen’s passion for Disney movies “saved” him. It’s a convenient narrative, but one that deftly elides how Owen relies on the wealth of his parents, including Pulitzer-Prize-wininng journalist Ron Suskind. Aladdin may have helped, but I’d credit the fancy private schools, specialists and bank of case workers.