NZIFF Review – ‘Life, Animated’ (dir. Roger Ross Williams)

Going to see Life, Animated was something of a last minute decision for me – since I already had so many films on my to-see list it was hard trying to pick and choose, but after seeing the segment on Newshub yesterday I was sold. The inclusion of Disney segments was already a given, but seeing a sample of the original animation created for the film had me sold and I bought my tickets straight away. I didn’t regret it one bit.

Life, Animated, directed by Roger Ross Williams and based on the book by Ron Suskind, is a look into the life of Owen Suskind, a young man with autism who finds the ability to reconnect with and understand the outside world via Disney films. The film comprises three main threads woven together; the past, in the recollection of Owen’s childhood and his early struggles; the present, in the following of Owen’s graduation and his moving into his own apartment; and The Land of Lost Sidekicks, a story written by Owen which makes up the last chapter of the Life, Animated book (featuring himself and a host of Disney characters) and beautifully animated by Mac Guff. Through the weaving together of old home video, interviews and footage of the Suskinds, Disney clips, and original animation, the film allows us a look into Owen’s life and the impact that his favourite Disney pictures has had on him, from giving him the tools to be able to communicate with his family again, to being able to forge new relationships with others, to even being able to graduate and move out of his family home into a solo living situation. 

As it turned out, Roger Ross Williams was in attendance at the screening, and he hosted a short Q&A session afterwards, where he answered questions on things such as the genesis of the film and what kind of impact Owen’s story had had following its takeoff. Regarding the former, it happened that Williams and Ron Suskind were longtime friends (stemming from their shared career in journalism) and Ron approached Williams with the project, suggesting that his book might make for a good documentary. As for the latter, Owen’s story has in fact had a big impact on autism research, in particular helping to establish the Autism Affinities Project and working to debunk the myth that people on the autism spectrum don’t feel empathy.

I was able to ask him about the use of the Disney film clips (specifically, whether or not it fell under fair use) and the inclusion of Disney characters in Mac Guff’s animation of The Land of Lost Sidekicks. Disney is notorious for being difficult when it comes to use of their property, and as it turns out (probably due to the volume of and context for usage), he had to go through the Disney Institute to get the footage licensed. Williams presented the Institute with a pitch, after which all of his audience were in tears – following this, he had no trouble getting the footage he needed, and it ended up being the first time Disney allowed the use of so many of their films in a single piece of non-Disney production, as well as also being the first time a third party was allowed to recreate Disney characters in an official piece of media.

It was also fun to hear that Porter Robinson himself was almost the composer for the entire film – fitting, considering the intended purpose of Worlds to tell fantastical stories through music and evoke a wealth of emotions. After having read an article on Porter’s love of animation and related media and his use of samples in his work, Williams contacted Porter, but as he was on tour at the time he was unable to. In the end Dylan Stark was recommended and became composer instead, a job which he accomplished beautifully along with second composer T. Griffin.

Another interesting question asked was whether Williams’ perception of autism and autistic people changed over the course of production. Williams admitted that it did – while he started off awkward and unsure of what to expect, he eventually became more comfortable and familiar around Owen, a process which he hoped would be apparent in the editing of the film. And it was, to great effect – there’s a clear connection being forged with the film’s subjects over time, helped immensely by the emotional interview segments with Owen and his family. The parts with Walt, Owen’s older brother, were of particular interest to me – the two of them relatively close in age, the two of them share a clear and close bond, and hearing Walt’s hopes for his younger brother and the empathy he expressed for his brother’s sadnesses struck a particular chord with me.

Life, Animated promised a good game and it certainly didn’t fail to meet my expectations. The animated opening of the film to Porter’s Sea of Voices was a perfect indication as to the film’s tone, which is beautiful, emotional, bittersweet and hopeful all at the same time. The cinematography is clear and straightforward and the colours are bright and saturated – fitting, considering the film’s subject. Owen himself comes across as a courageous, imaginative and warm individual, and his family are equally admirable, having walked with Owen every step of the way through his journey. Overall it’s a touching and ultimately enlightening affair, and I highly recommend it to anyone who has ever been affected by a Disney film – and no doubt that will be just about everyone.

Rating: ★★★★★

Other screenings of Life, Animated at the Wellington NZIFF are:
• Fri 29 July, 6:30PM @ Paramount Cinema
• Sat 6 August, 1:30PM @ Embassy Theatre
• Sun 7 August, 4PM @ Lighthouse Petone

Michelle can be found on Facebook and YouTube and can also be supported on Patreon.

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