I think it was the moment when Gilbert Gottfried showed up out of the blue at the Disney club run by Owen Suskind—an autistic man who learned to interact with the outside world through Disney movies—that I started to feel like I was being manipulated by Roger Ross Williams’ new documentary “Life, Animated.” Because while I am for documentarians taking whatever creative license they feel necessary to get their points across I couldn’t help but sense that Williams was trying too hard to make me feel something concerning an already extraordinary story. Suskind’s life smacks of the same storybook magic and wonder that made Walt Disney’s animated films so magnificent: parents desperate to connect with their withdrawn autistic son; their breakthrough when they discover that he has memorized every single Disney film and can communicate by reciting lines from them; his gradual reintegration back into society; his graduating from school and moving into his own apartment with his girlfriend. How can you watch the film and not be moved?
And while the documentary’s intentions may have been noble—especially an extended series of sequences where they animate a story Suskind wrote as a child about a young boy becoming the Protector of Disney Sidekicks—the film feels like it’s shilling for Disney. I’m not sure how anyone could have told Suskind’s story without the post-modern pastiche of Disney footage juxtaposed with scenes from his life; the depiction of Disney films as a benevolent panacea which literally saved a young man and his family from a lifetime of potential misery and hopelessness. But “Life, Animated” doesn’t seem to have enough confidence in Suskind’s story to let it speak for itself.
A&E IndieFilms, Motto Pictures, Roger Ross Williams Productions.
SCORE: 5 out of 10
Nate Hood is Screen Comment’s main film critic in New York. Follow him here @NateHood257