Review: Roger Ross Williams' 'Life, Animated'

My grandfather watched Star Trek from its first airing on NBC in 1966 and continuously in syndication from then on.  When The Next Generation aired, it was time my family spent together every week, and it formed the basis for a lot of our discussions.  In 1991, at the beginning of the fifth season, they aired an episode titled "Darmok", which strands Captain Picard on a planet with the captain of an alien race who speak entirely in mythopoetic metaphor.  It's a divisive episode in the canon, hailed as the greatest genius of the series and castigated as the sappiest, most unrealistic depth.

Sure, taken literally the idea of an entire society that communicates through references to a common pool of mythic truths is open to any number of logical complaints.  But 1991 was also the year Owen Suskind was born, the son of journalist Ron Suskind and his wife Cornelia, and it's hard to say he didn't do exactly that.  After falling silent and being diagnosed as autistic just before his third birthday, Owen spoke again almost a year later: "juicervose".  His mother thought he was asking for juice to drink, but he kept coming back to the scene on the video tape of The Little Mermaid where Ursula tricks Ariel into a devil's deal, saying it would cost "just your voice".  Somewhere, deep within himself, Owen was reaching out using the only language he knew.

Most of Life, Animated takes place more recently, as Owen -- now in his twenties -- graduates from his school and moves on to an assisted living apartment, largely on his own.  The last thing he does before packing up for the move is to watch three scenes from Dumbo, his own personal confidence-building feather.  He's a lot more expressive than the toddler who would communicate exclusively through lines of Disney dialogue.  But he still makes sense of the big, confusing, ever-changing world by putting it in terms of safe, well-established, thoroughly memorized animated movies.

Of course, it's true what they say: if you've met one autistic person, then you've met one autistic person.  The Suskinds were lucky that Owen found a way he could communicate that made sense to them, and that provided the basis for further learning and development.  Unfortunately, there's nothing particular about Disney movies here, and everything particular about Owen; it's not like this can be reverse-engineered and replicated, and Ron -- who wrote the book on which the film is based -- is wise not to advocate for some sort of "Disney therapy" for autism.

That said, many of the students at Owen's school do find that Disney movies provide a wealth of references and lessons about personal interactions and feelings.  A couple dozen of them in the Disney club pause movies to discuss what the characters  are feeling.  The simplified, exaggerated expressions make it easier for people who have difficulty reading facial expressions or body language.  The bright, distinctive designs and color schemes make it easier for people who have difficulty processing and distinguishing faces.  And if you get it wrong at first, well, a movie won't laugh at you and bears no grudges.

And, on some level, isn't this what all children are doing anyway?  Sure, we dress it up in abstractions that neurotypical people combine and manipulate more skillfully than those on the autism spectrum, but human culture is inseparable from storytelling.  That's why we watch movies in the first place: it's the modern version of gathering around the fire to hear the stories that tell us who we are.  Owen's translation from stories as object lessons to his personal behavior may be more explicit and easily examined than for most people, but he reminds us that everything we learn ultimately finds root in the stories we hear.  And, these days, the ones we watch.

That's why I often come down harshly on movies aimed primarily at children.  I have no patience for the argument that it doesn't matter if a movie is half-baked pap because it's "just for kids".  The stories we feed our children should, if anything, be more carefully considered than ones intended for more developed minds.  These are the stories that will form the basis for an entire generation's sense of itself.  And while I'm hardly one to claim Disney is perfect in this regard, over the years it has shown a steady effort to improve and refine the lessons its movies teach.  Owen could have fixated on a lot worse.

There is one thing, though, that is universal about Owen's experience of autism, and it may be the most important point buried in Life, Animated: he is not diseased.  Owen, like everyone else with some form of autism, processes information differently than neurotypical people do; sometimes radically so.  But people like Owen are not broken.  They do not need to be fixed -- and autism does not need a cure -- any more than someone from a different culture does.  What we need are better ways of finding common languages to speak across this divide, and to reach across it with love rather than shame.  Owen's neurodivergence makes his life no less whole and human, and neither do those of people across the autism spectrum.

Rating: 4 out of 5