Life, Animated conveys something subtly essential. Primarily a documentary chronicling the struggles the Suskind family faces when confronted with their youngest sons’ diagnosis of autism at age 3, it is also a story about how the young man in question, Owen Suskind, begins to utilize the visual language of Disney films to communicate with his family.
And your role as animators of Owen’s vivid interior world—“The Land Of The Lost Sidekicks”—is also essential. This is a world Owen initially created to help himself cope with some of the trials he faced as he came into contact with the outside world—a space that was often filled with people less understanding and patient than his parents and older brother. It’s an imaginary world filled with second tier Disney characters, from Jiminy Cricket to Thumper. However, this isn’t some idyllic refuge; instead Owen sees it as constantly under siege, and he is its protector.
In bringing “The Land Of The Lost Sidekicks” to life you managed to create an interesting counterpoint to the literalist figures that are Disney’s stock in trade. Instead of precise but exaggerated features, your work is much more impressionistic, as if we’re seeing the world through Owen’s eyes. This serves the whole movie, both thematically and aesthetically.
Owen may have some difficulty parsing other people’s emotional states, but his are as clear as any animated characters. His body language and modes of expression mimic the broad, exaggerated characteristics that suffuse the Disney characters he uses to understand the world. This means it is possible to see his emotional life writ large—and that life isn’t much different than anyone else’s, except that it is painted in neon. Yet _Life, Animated is still a very specific story about a very specific family facing profound challenges. Owen’s fear and anxiety as he prepares to leave his home and move into an assisted living condo is something all of us have felt at one time or another, the difference being even five years before that moment would have been unimaginable either for Owen, or his parents. What would seem mundane and everyday to most is an Everest-like trial for the Suskind family.
In creating “The Land Of Lost Sidekicks” –an evolving, living thing that finds shape as it reflects the changes and struggles that he faces every day—Owen again uses Disney characters to help himself overcome his challenges with communication. Those challenges are surmounted, more often than not, partly through the courage, intelligence and sheer persistence Owen possesses in amounts I envy.
The whole of the Suskind family—Owen’s father, older brother and a mother who demonstrates her love for her son in every expression—are so fundamentally decent as people, they seem fictitious. Just watching them interact is both fascinating and utterly heartening. They are kind and completely genuine, which is a small miracle in a circumstance where cameras are constantly at your shoulder. All of them work together to help Owen push past what seem to be insurmountable barriers.
Your work is integral to the final moments of Life, Animated. You manage to convey a mixture of hope, anxiety, and profound sadness. A mixture of emotions that is entirely in tune with Owen’s.