Dir: Roger Ross Williams
****When Owen Suskind suddenly became withdrawn and silent at three years old after being a sociable and talkative child, his parents Ron and Cornelia sought medical help and after many test he was diagnosed with autism. Our understanding of autism is much better now than it was back then in the early nineties, the Suskinds weren't given a lot to go on with respects to how Owen could develop, if it was possible and what he understood. They describe the experience as feeling like their child had been kidnapped and hearing them speak of it in this documentary is heart-breaking at times. However, Roger Ross Williams's brilliant Life, Animated is not designed to pull on the heartstrings or to be emotionally manipulative. This is the story of how Owen has essentially proven there is more to those with autism and how their minds can work. Owen was thought to be speaking gibberish, until he started to repeat dialogue from Disney films. This was shrugged off by doctors as just being echopraxia, a condition associated with autism where people with the condition repeat what they hear without necessarily understanding it. When what Owen repeated was clearly in context to a situation he was in, the Suskind knew that their little boy was in there, understood things but was somewhat trapped in his own mind. Ron Suskind, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist writing for The Wall Street Journal, documented Owen's progress over the years and released the biography Life, Animated: A Story of sidekicks, Heroes and Autism, the book this film is based on. As he developed, Owen became more and more obsessed with Disney as it was his only means of making sense of the world. When he was secretly bullied at school he wrote short stories about himself and how he was 'Protector of the sidekicks'. He saw the Disney sidekicks as being the ones that help the heroes to achieve their goals, whether it is getting the girl or saving the day. It was a complex alternative viewpoint but made perfect sense and helped his parents and therapists understand his thoughts and how he felt about himself. Watching Disney films, or just a few scenes, became a daily occurrence that Owen would enjoy with his family. It slowly helped him develop, communicate and understand the world. The film uses a few old home videos and inserts snippets from famous Disney films as well as fresh animation that features Owen himself with the Disney sidekicks. The documentary joins Owen as he is about to leave home and move into his own apartment and explores his and his family's apprehension. Nothing is forced, Owen is never asked difficult questions and Roger Ross Williams' approach is to just let things happen naturally. Owen is asked to make a speech at an Autism convention in Paris and we see him chair Disney club meetings for his friends but there is never any forced drama, no unnecessary intensity or false sense of suspense. Owen's father Ron is clearly behind much of what goes on but he never comes across as a pushy parent, just a proud one that clearly loves his son. In the wrong hands this could have been just awful, such is the state of documentaries these days. I'm glad Owen's story was handled the way it was and given the feature length treatment it deserved, rather than a made for TV hatchet job. Probably the most uplifting and educational documentary of 2016.