Review: Life, Animated
The process of discovery is always fascinating. Stories that involve revelations and breakthroughs can be compelling on the big screen and when those revelations are taken from real life, the drama is only heightened. So this story of parents learning to connect with their child again after a devastating diagnosis should have provided plenty of fodder for a thought-provoking documentary. And while there were moments, the film actually suffers to fill its 90-minute run time with the kind of drama that seemed possible. In the end, it felt like material better suited for a documentary short than for a feature length film.
I first happened upon this story in an episode of a podcast called Radiolab. In it, the parents covered much the same ground as is covered in the first half of this film. Their son, Owen, was diagnosed with autism at the age of 3. That began a period where Owen stopped communicating with them altogether. They were only able to re-engage him through lines from Disney animated films, which they discovered he had been memorizing all along. The 'aha! moment' came when they realized that what they thought was the gibberish word "juicervose" was actually a line from The Little Mermaid where Ursula says "just your voice."
For my money, everything up until this point is thoroughly engrossing. Family drama, medical mystery, grandiose discovery. The film then devolves into a melodrama all about Owen's life today as he prepares to move out of his parents' house and to live independently. We see his family move him into an assisted living facility and talk him through his new life and the growing pains that come.
While the second half of the film has heartwarming moments of humanity, like when Owen's girlfriend breaks up with him and he has to make sense of being just friends, the potential was there for so much more. There is little explanation of the process used to get Owen from basically being incapable of communication to being high-functioning enough to have a job and a social life. The most compelling moments are the illustrations injected to show what his experience must have felt like. They are beautifully drawn, but few and far between. If the second half had included more of these--perhaps showing more of Owen's dramatic progress--it would have been much more riveting.
And while it is certainly up to the filmmakers to decide what version of the story they wish to tell, I can't help but wonder how much the film would have benefitted from more of these elements and less of Owen going to a Regal movie theater to apply for a job. It seems that in trying to make his story relatable to the audience, they suppressed some of what really makes it exceptional. Instead of the story of a lifetime, they told the story of a life.
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